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“I don’t want to say goodbye. I don’t want you to go.”
He kissed her head. “It’s not for forever. Be careful, my girl. Please. Be careful.”319
“I love you,” she said, sobbing, pulling away to meet his eyes. “I love you.”
He smiled and rubbed the tears from her cheeks.
And then he was gone.
Serilda sagged, wrapping her arms around herself like a shield. She felt carved out, as if a nachtkrapp had eaten her heart. She knew that seeing her father again was a gift, but it also opened up a wound that had barely begun to heal.
“Don’t tell methatis the mortal girl you’ve dubbed the Alder Queen.”
Her head snapped up. Through her blurry vision, she spied Perchta watching her with stony eyes. She had often felt that being caught in the gaze of the Erlking was a bit like being touched by an icy wind. But to be caught beneath Perchta’s gaze was more like being plunged into an ice-covered lake.
“Such sentimentality is hardly befitting the queen of Gravenstone,” came Perchta’s biting voice.
Serilda stilled. She felt too numb to care for the insult, but not numb enough to ignore the threat in the huntress’s vulture smile.
She shuddered. Suddenly the room felt too empty, too quiet. The hunters and dark ones, gone. The ghosts and visiting spirits, gone. Her father, gone. Leaving behind Serilda and the huntress, the Erlking and the god of death, and the ghosts of five children she still had not managed to save.
She did not want to cower before this demon huntress, but her sorrow had dimmed the embers she could usually feel glowing inside of her. She was not afraid of this woman. She wasterrifiedof her. And she felt drained of courage, of stubbornness, of wit, of anything that might have allowed her to stand tall and face the huntress with dignity. She could only hold out her hands to the children, urging them to stay close to her, as if she could protect them now, when she never could before.
Perchta flashed her a knowing, cruel look that made the hair stand on the back of Serilda’s neck. “Pathetic.”
“It is done,” said the Erlking. “Release the huntress.”
Velos’s expression darkened, but in the next moment, the shackles on320Perchta’s wrists snapped open. They clanked to the floor and vanished in a curl of black smoke.
Perchta did not look down at her freed hands, but kept her stare fixed on Serilda, lips curving higher. Then, without glancing at her paramour, she reached her hand out and grabbed the front of the Erlking’s tunic. She dug her sharp nails into the folds of the cloth and pulled him toward her. Her head turned in the last moment, capturing his mouth with hers.
Her eyes closed, her other hand burying itself into his long hair. The king wrapped an arm around her waist, deepening the kiss.
The kiss was passion and possession and even perhaps a tinge of revenge. Serilda did not know what to make of it, but she felt heat flooding her cheeks. She couldn’t shake the feeling that part of the kiss was meant to be a warning, but for whom? Her? The Erlking? He had been so sure there could be no envy from Perchta, but she wondered whether he’d misjudged.
Perchta broke the kiss as quickly as she had started it. “Did you miss me?” she purred.
“As the moon longs for the sun,” responded the Erlking.
“Vile,” muttered Fricz.
The Erlking pulled away from Perchta, his gaze intensifying. “Welcome home.”
“Yes,” said Velos, an oddly victorious smile on their face. “Enjoy your hours in the mortal realm, Perchta Pergana Zamperi. For I shall be welcoming you back to join your brethren as dawn breaks upon the Mourning Moon.”
The Erlking lifted an eyebrow, his knuckles tightening on Perchta’s hip. “That was not our bargain. You have what I promised, and I shall keep what was promised me.”
“I have freed the huntress, as requested.” Velos lifted their swaying lantern. “But without a proper vessel, no spirit can be sustained within the mortal realm. She will be forced to return to Verloren at sunrise.”
Serilda expected the king to snarl, to curse … but not to smirk.
And then, to laugh.321
“Do you think me a fool? But of course I have a proper vessel.”
He lifted his heel against the lid of the wooden coffin and shoved. It slid off and crashed onto its side, revealing Serilda’s body within.
A shudder passed through Serilda at the sight. When she had seen her body before in the carriage house, it had been wearing the same drab, mud-speckled dress and boots that she had worn when she arrived at Adalheid Castle. But now her body wore a flaxen shirt—loose around her swelling stomach, the laces open at the throat. Riding breeches and black leather gloves, fine boots that rose over her calves, and a ruby-red cloak identical to the one Serilda wore spread around the body, more reminiscent of blood than velvet. Rather than her hair being kept in two disheveled braids, it was let loose to fall in waves around her shoulders. Her face had been washed of dirt, her lips and eyelids anointed with oil that made them glisten in the torchlight.