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“Papa,” she said, sobbing into his shoulder. “I thought I’d never see you again.” They were the only words she could get out before sobs took her310over. She was crying too hard to hear his response, but he brushed her hair and held her close, and that was enough.
Then, all around her, a series of gasps and cries. Fear darted through Serilda and she released her father, spinning back toward the children.
But their cries had not been fear at all. Their eyes were shining with astonishment, with unparalleled joy. Little Gerdrut let out a squeal and lurched forward, passing Serilda in a delighted blur.
Serilda’s father had not come alone. Gerdrut’s grandmother was there, the same she had seen in her dream. And Hans’s grandparents. And the twins’ great-aunt and Anna’s favorite cousin. And more, so many more. Spirits and souls gathered among the ghosts. The chamber became a cacophony of tears, laughter, disbelief. Everywhere Serilda looked she saw weeping and kissing and incredulous smiles.
Then, out from the gates, emerged two figures dressed in regal finery. A man and a woman, each with a slender crown atop their head. The man had a short beard and blond hair that fell to his shoulders. The woman—thick reddish waves and a spattering of freckles on her pale skin.
Serilda’s breath left her. She knew those crowns. She recognized the man’s doublet. She knew the woman’s smile, warm and disarming and a tiny bit mischievous. It was Gild’s smile.
The king of Adalheid swept straight up to Manfred, embracing him like an old friend. The queen made her way among the crowd, tears shimmering on her cheeks as she greeted the members of her court. She took every offered hand, kissed every cheek, opened her arms to every noble and servant as if they were equals. In death, perhaps they were.
The ghosts at first seemed baffled by the appearance of these two monarchs. They did not recognize the king and queen. They still did not remember them.
But their hesitation was short-lived, because the king and queen clearly knewthem. Loved and respected them, even. It was not difficult to accept these grinning nobles as their true sovereigns, especially after centuries of serving the dark ones.311
Pain spiked in Serilda’s chest. Oh, how she wished Gild were here.
Meanwhile, the dark ones looked on, tapping their long fingers against their weapons and glowering impatiently.
Serilda scanned the thickening crowd of souls and realized that something strange was happening to those still crossing the bridge. Many of the spirits vanished the moment they passed through the arch of the gate, rather than entering the chamber beneath Gravenstone Castle. Were they being sent elsewhere, she wondered—to wherever their loved ones waited for them, weeping at graveyards or bent over candlelit offerings?
She turned back to Papa. “What about Mother? Is she with you?”
Her father’s expression fell. “She is—” He hesitated, his voice catching. “I do not know. I have never seen her in Verloren. I do not believe she is … I don’t think she’s there.”
Serilda blinked slowly.
Not in Verloren?
What did that mean? Was she still alive?
It was, somehow, both Serilda’s greatest hope and deepest fear. That her mother was still out there somewhere. That she had not perished the night she’d been taken by the hunt. That Serilda might still have a chance of finding her.
And yet, that would mean the most hurtful truth of all. Her mother had left her and never come back. Not because she was forced to, but because she had wanted to.
Serilda shoved the feeling down deep inside. She made herself smile as she cupped her father’s face. “It’s all right. You’re here. That’s all that matters.”
“For now,” he said, embracing her again. “Even to have just one moment. To say goodbye. After all that happened …”
Serilda squeezed his shoulders, but even as she tried to make space in her heart for this unexpected gift—this precious moment with the man who had been everything to her for so long—her gaze snagged on Velos not far away. The god was turning back toward the gate, their cloak sweeping across the dusty floor.312
“We are not finished!” said the Erlking, his voice sharp as a sword.
Velos paused, but appeared unbothered by the king’s anger. “Are we not?”
The Erlking swept his arm around the chamber. “As you so value your beloved human souls, I shall give you the ghosts within this chamber.”
Serilda stilled.
Every being in the room—dark ones and ghosts alike—went still.
Serilda extracted herself from her father’s hold, unable to believe she’d heard correctly. The Erlking would give up his claim on all these souls? He would grant their freedom? An escape from the control of the dark ones?
On the Mourning Moon, just as he had promised Agathe.
“All,” added the Erlking, his sharp gaze landing on Serilda, then dropping to the five children around her, all huddled together with their loved ones, “except for those five.”