She couldn’t trust anyone in this castle.
Ahead of them, a glint of gold caught her eye. A tiny thread looped around the base of a candle on one of the wall sconces. The tiniest detail, easily missed by anyone. By everyone.
But these past weeks, Serilda had grown accustomed to searching out tiny details.
She stood straighter. “Thank you, Manfred, but you needn’t escort me the rest of the way. I can find it from here.”
“I do not mind, my lady.”
“I know you don’t. But I have to learn my way around this maze eventually, don’t I? And I could use a moment … to steel myself.”
A touch of pity flashed over his features. “Of course, my lady,” he said, bowing. “I will leave you be, then.”
“Thank you, Manfred.”
He walked away with the same unyielding posture and measured steps with which he always carried himself, and Serilda couldn’t help but think of him as one of the few true gentlemen in this castle, surrounded by the demons and all their callous frivolity.13
As soon as he’d turned the corner, Serilda let her shoulders relax. She reached for the candlestick and slipped the knot of golden thread up and over the flame. She wrapped it around her finger as she studied the hall.
Silence and shadows.
“Come on out, Gild,” she said, smiling. “I know you’re there.”
Summoned to the king’s chambers yet again?”
The voice came from behind her, so close she imagined the tickle of warmth on the back of her neck. She did not startle. She was used to Gild’s sudden appearances. His spirit had been cursed and bound to this castle like hers was, but he could move freely within its walls, able to vanish and reappear at will anywhere he liked. It was a marvelous magic trick, and he used it often—to pull pranks, to sneak up on people, to eavesdrop and spy. He especially loved to jump out and frighten the children, sometimes even passing right through them, since he could walk through ghosts. They pretended to be angry, despite their bewildered giggles.
He had been trying to teach Serilda the skill as well, but it was more difficult than he made it seem. So far she’d only managed it once, and though she’d tried to transport herself to the queen’s boudoir, she’d ended up in the buttery instead, along with a vicious headache.
Despite Gild’s closeness and the subtle dance of breath against her skin, there was an edge to his voice. An envy he had tried to keep from her since the king first announced their betrothal, but that became more apparent as the wedding approached.
Serilda hated lying to him about this. It was the most difficult lie she’d ever had to tell.
Gild knew that the Erlking wanted a mortal wife so that he could father a child. Gild assumed—and Serilda let him—that her frequent visits to the15king were for this purpose, though the mere idea made her want to claw off her own skin.
What Gild didn’t know, and she could never tell him, was that she was already with child. That she had been since the night Gild pressed his lips to hers, trailing kisses along her jaw, her throat, the swell of her breast. They had been intimate only once, and Serilda still shivered when she let herself remember his closeness, his touch, the way he’d whispered her name like poetry. That night, in their passion, they’d conceived a child.
But the next time she’d seen Gild, the Erlking had him strung up on the castle keep with golden chains—the same gold chains he himself had spun in an effort to save Serilda’s life. As soon as the king learned of Serilda’s condition, he’d concocted this scheme: to marry her and claim the child as his own. If she told anyone the truth, he would never free the souls of the children she loved to Verloren. They would be trapped here, enslaved to the dark ones, forever.
She couldn’t let that happen, which meant she couldn’t risk telling anyone.
Not even Gild.
Especially not Gild.
“Yes,” she said, once she was sure her voice would not tremble. “I have been summoned to visit with the monster yet again.” She turned and met Gild’s eye. “Lucky me.”
She made no effort to hide her disdain for her betrothed, not with Gild. This arrangement with the king was never her choice. It was not to be a marriage of love. She wasn’t even sure it could be called a marriage of convenience, as it certainly wasn’t convenient forher.This was the man who had abducted her mother when Serilda was just a toddler, left her father for dead, and murdered five innocent children just to spite her—and that barely touched upon his multitude of evils. Families torn apart, lives discarded at his whim, magical creatures hunted—some to extinction.
She could not keep Gild from being jealous. He believed the Erlking16had claimed her hand in marriage and her body in his bed. She might not have been able to tell him the truth, but she would never allow him to think that she felt anything for the Erlking beyond revulsion.
She had to play along, had to keep up these lies, so she might eventually get what she wanted: freedom for the children’s souls. The Erlking had promised to release their spirits—Hans, Nickel, Fricz, Anna, and Gerdrut. He would grant them peace.
In exchange, she would lie for him. She would say the child in her womb belonged to him. She would keep their secret.