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“I will always just be Serilda to you,” she said, tousling his hair—as much to make him squirm away in annoyance as anything.33
“No, you won’t be the Alder Queen,” said Nickel. “Not to us. That makes it sound like you belong to him, and I won’t accept that. We’ll come up with something else.”
“The Golden Queen!” said Gerdrut. Beaming, she reached for Serilda’s hand. “You can make something from nothing. You can spin straw into gold.”
Serilda’s breath caught. As she couldn’t have the children accidentally tell the Erlking the truth, she’d had to maintain the lie that she was a gold-spinner, even with them. But Gerdrut’s comment reminded her of that day, many months ago, when they had gathered in the shelter of a pine tree, surrounded by banks of snow, and listened to Serilda tell them a tale of the wicked Erlking and the huntress Perchta. That day, Gerdrut had been the one to liken Serilda’s storytelling to the magical gift of gold-spinning.
Looking back, Serilda could see that was the day everything in her life had changed. She pressed a kiss to the top of Gerdrut’s curls, then drew the others tight against her. She ignored the shudder that scuttled across her skin at the feel of them all, their bodies like brittle leaves ready to crumble. She was grateful to have them close, dead or otherwise.
One of the attendants cleared her throat and pulled open the door. “Forgive me, my lady, but we should not keep His Grim waiting any longer.”
Chapter Five
Serilda did not know what to expect from her nuptials. When she asked the Erlking, he told her there was nothing for her to do but be a happy bride. To which she responded that, since for her to be happy would not be possible, perhaps she would just sleep through it all and he could send someone to wake her when the feast started. She’d been trying to annoy him, but the Erlking had merely laughed.
Like she wasjoking.
She tried not to worry. It didn’t matter if she had to say some absurd vows about love and eternity. It didn’t matter if he gave her a ring or kissed her or did anything else to sell the spectacle. This marriage was a farce. Nothing was going to change.
He could claim her hand in marriage, but her heart would always be her own.
Well, except for the part where her heart was trapped inside her physical body and hidden away somewhere and she might never see it again until her baby was born and it was too late.
She was led over a high bridge that she had never crossed before to a portion of the outer wall she had never walked, a reminder that the castle was so vast, and so full of nooks and crannies, rooms and towers where her and Gild’s bodies might be kept.
She walked down a set of steps, into a long narrow corridor. The day35was sunny and warm, but even now these windowless halls held a chill. The leather of her hunting uniform made soft groaning noises with every step, and though a part of her felt ridiculous in armor and breeches, another part of her felt shockingly bold, almost brave. No one could touch her, and if they dared try, she had a loaded crossbow to ensure they’d regret it.
Her entourage paused at a doorway hung with a heavy velvet curtain. They held the drapes aside, ushering her through.
Serilda stepped out onto a stone balcony and her burgeoning confidence immediately began to crumble. Her muscles tightened.
The balcony stood two stories above the northeast gardens. She had spent little time on this side of the castle, where the grounds were largely utilitarian, housing the dovecote, the infirmary garden, the groundskeeper’s cottage, a small orchard, and a vineyard.
Now a field of sorts had been set up below, fully fenced in by wooden posts. The grounds around the enclosure held the entirety of the Erlking’s court. She saw Manfred, the coachman, his impaled eye dripping blood as he looked up at her with an expression that was just a touch sadder than his usual indifference. She spied the bruised stable boy, whose head was lowered, fingers fidgeting with the hem of his tunic. The headless woman had traded her usual riding gear for a simple gown and tied a scarf around her neck to hide the wound, though her blood had already seeped through the fabric.
And there were the dark ones, who were so breathtaking it almost hurt to look at them. But theirs was a hollow beauty, absent of compassion and joy. Most appeared bored, even irate, as they glowered up at her. She returned a smile.
Gild was nowhere to be seen. She wondered if the guards had managed to capture him after all. Perhaps he was even now bound up in golden chains. The thought made her ill.
She hoped he was all right, hidden away somewhere safe.36
She hoped he wasn’t planning something disastrous.
And then there was a tiny, ridiculous part of her that wished he were here. Not in the audience, watching this spectacle of a nightmare play out. Buthere. On this balcony. Taking her hand into his?.?.?.
Foolish, foolish.
The balcony she stood on had been decorated for the ceremony. The stone rail was hung with a garland of roses the color of claret wine. The balusters ornamented with posies of sage and lamb’s ear tied with black lace. Gold and black banners decorated the castle walls, and spicy incense burned below, trailing a heady perfume into the air. The overall effect was lush and decadent and might even have been thrilling to Serilda, if the groom hadn’t been a cruel tyrant that murdered children and mythical creatures for sport.
The moment she thought it, she spotted the balcony directly opposite her, jutting out from the wall of the castle keep, lavishly decorated like her own. The curtains parted and the king stepped out. He was dressed in fine leather armor and tall black boots, just as he had been the first time she met him, on the night of the Snow Moon.
A hunter, and a king. The sight filled Serilda with equal parts awe and disgust.
“My bride,” he said, his honeyed voice carrying across the silence that stretched between the keep and the castle wall. “You are as radiant as the solstice sun.”
“Charming,” she responded, unflattered, as she set the small crossbow on the rail. “In Märchenfeld, we have a tradition of shattering a bunch of clay dishes right before a wedding ceremony in order to frighten away wicked spirits. I would suggest we start with that, but we might lose half our guests.”
“No dark one has ever been frightened off by broken platters and soup bowls. But the idea does amuse me.” He flashed a simpering smile, one that might have tricked their onlookers into believing that he did so dote on his strange human bride. Was anyone fooled? Was this charade even necessary?37Surely no one believed there was any love between them. It would require an imagination far beyond her own, and that was asking a lot.