She thought of what everyone else in this castlethoughtwas happening in this room right now, and it made her want to laugh. If only they could see how their supposedly lovestruck king spent most of their evenings completely ignoring her.
Then she thought of Gild, and how what hethoughtwas happening was probably tearing him apart, and she quickly sobered.
“How fares my progeny?”
She started. The king was still turned away from her, his raven-black hair trailing loose down his back.
Your progeny does not exist, she wanted to say.This child is not yours. Will never be yours.
Instead, she pressed a hand to her stomach. “I feel no different. If I’m being honest, I’m beginning to wonder what all the fuss is about.” She spoke lightly, to disguise the very real concerns that had started to bubble up inside her. “I’m hungry all the time, but that’s nothing new.” She grabbed a nectarine and bit into it. When the juice dribbled down her chin, she wiped it away with her sleeve and kept eating, ignoring the king’s disapproving gaze upon her.
If Erlkönig wanted a queen schooled in courtly etiquette, he’d chosen poorly.
“Is there a midwife in the castle?” she asked. “One of the ghosts, perhaps?23Surely the previous royal family employed one. I have so many questions. It would be nice to have someone to talk to.”
“A midwife,” the Erlking repeated, and Serilda could tell the idea had never occurred to him. “I will find out.”
Serilda licked a drop of juice from her wrist before it could reach the cuff of her sleeve.
Snatching a napkin from the table, the king tossed it at her. “Try to improve your manners. You are going to be a queen, and my wife.”
“Yourchoice, not mine.” She ignored the napkin and took another bite of the nectarine. When she was finished, she grinned and dropped the stone of the fruit into her glass beside the cherry pits. She then used her velvet skirt to wipe the sticky residue from her fingers, one by one. “But if you’re embarrassed by me, there is still time to change your mind.”
His expression cooled, which was a feat, given its usual iciness. “At least I will not have long to tolerate you. Six months. Barely a blink.”
She prickled at the implication. Surely he should at least try to hide his intention to kill her once she’d served her purpose?
Out of spite, she broke off a hunk of cheese and shoved it into her mouth, knowing full well it was the king’s favorite. She was still chewing when she asked, “Will we share your chambers once the ceremony is done?”
The king scoffed. “Absolutely not. We will continue on as we’ve been until we can announce the pregnancy. There is no need for anything more.”
Serilda exhaled. She’d been dreading that question for weeks, and she felt dizzy with the relief of knowing she would not have to sleep here, with him. They would just go on pretending.
For now, she could do that.
How long had she been there? She glanced at the clock. Barely ten minutes had passed. It felt like ages.
“I wonder if we should have held the wedding ceremony on the Lovers’ Moon,” he said. “Choosing the solstice had a poetry to it, but it seems my bride has grown impatient.”
“It is not impatience that I feel.”24
“You have not dreamed of being a summer bride?”
She snorted. “I’mnota summer bride. I’m a summer sacrifice.”
The Erlking laughed. It was a rare sound, and one that always gave Serilda a twinge of satisfaction, even though she didn’t want it to.
The sad part was, she meant it.
This was not to be a wedding. This was to be a ritual sacrifice, and she was the lamb. When the time was right, he would slaughter her and take her child, who she somehow already loved with a ferocity unlike anything she’d ever known.
Serilda rubbed her fingers across the scar on her wrist. In truth, the sacrifice had already been made, from the moment the Erlking thrust a gold-tipped arrow through her wrist and put a curse upon her soul, splitting her spirit from her mortal body and tethering it to this haunted castle, trapping her here, on the dark side of the veil.
She had witnessed her body lying on the floor of the throne room, breathing, yet lifeless. Serilda didn’t fully understand the magic. She could no longer feel her pulse or the steady drum of her heartbeat. She could hold her breath for an eternity, and yet she continued to breathe from habit, or comfort.
And then there was her unborn child, who she could only hope was all right. She felt none of the symptoms of pregnancy, the bouts of stomach sickness or the aches in her back and ankles that she remembered women in Märchenfeld complaining about. She did not know if the baby wasphysicallyinside of her, even now, or if it was growing in the corpselike version of her, hidden away in this castle.
She had to trust that the Erlking would not have done anything to harm the child, given his plans for it, and she very much hated having to put her trust in him.