I went straight to my mother’s grave, not daring to visit my father first, just in case something happened to call me back to the palace. The guard stood a respectful distance back, and if he thought it strange that the king was apparently unaware that the mother I’d gone to visit was, in fact, dead, he made no comment.
I knelt awkwardly on the lush green grass before her headstone, and prayed a wordless prayer. Then I spoke her true name aloud, and for the second time my mother’s spirit appeared before me.
“Yes, my daughter?”
I burst into tears as soon as I heard her voice, and she moved nearer to me, as though she would touch me if she could. And how, how I wished she could. Great, heaving sobs tore out of me as I folded forward over the round swell of the child growing within me. My fingers dug into the the good dark earth beneath the grass, and my tears fell like a hot rain.
“Oh daughter,” my mother said. “Oh my poor daughter,” and the way she said it, as though her heart were breaking, I knew she knew. I would not have to say anything of what had led to this moment, and for that I found myself disproportionately grateful. I cried a bit longer, then sat up and wiped my face on the back of my hand. It was the gesture of a miller’s daughter, not a queen, and it comforted me. My mother’s spirit smiled encouragingly, and I took a deep, shuddering breath.
“I disobeyed you, mother. I dealt with a creature whose name I did not know, and soon it will come to collect what I so recklessly bargained away.”
“Tell me more of this creature,” she said, and so I did, going back over all three nights I’d spent with it. Occasionally she’d stop me, ask for clarification on a point, or greater detail, but in the end she shook her head.
“It’s not one I know, my daughter,” she said. Tears began to well up again, but she held up a hand to stall them. “But from what you say- it enjoys a challenge, the game. You say it appreciated you attempting to outwit it?”
“Yes,” I said, wondering where this was leading.
“You must attempt to outwit it again,” she said. “It will give you the chance if you ask: it’s too vain not to. But this time, you must succeed.”
My fingers spasmed into fists. “But how, mother?”
“Challenge it. Ask it for a chance to win back your firstborn.”
“But- but why on earth would it take such a chance?”
My mother smiled sadly. “Because it would never believe that you, magicless mortal that you are, might actually succeed against it. And because it knows how much greater the pain will be, if first you have had hope."