✍️✍️✍️✍️ Garden Of Poison Chapter 21 - 25 Complete Chapters ✍️✍️✍️✍️



Persuasion of the pin( chapter 21)

Music Recommendation: Someone- TSS     

When Anastasia had slipped into the emerald and beige gown, she had expected to stay in the corners of the main hall and not be asked for a dance. At least not by Prince Dante. But even though initially it sounded like a request, it was a demand.     

She noted how the loud voices of people had reduced to a murmur, and she could feel people's eyes on them.     

Aiden, who had finished coughing, said, "Brother Dante, I didn't know you knew Tasia."     

"You don't mind if I borrow her, do you?" Dante's eyes briefly moved to look at his younger brother before his gaze fell back on the young woman.     

Aiden was still wrapping his head around the situation, and he replied, "A—ah I guess not."     

Even though many eyes were on them, Anastasia and Dante stared only at each other. She noticed him slightly tilt his head, which was when she finally raised her hand forward, placing her hand in his gloved one.     

Anastasia felt Dante wrap his fingers around her hand before he led her across the marble floor and towards the centre of the hall.     

Feeling the softness of the velvet glove on her hand, Anastasia realised that Prince Dante always wore his gloves. She was thankful for it because she didn't have to worry about him finding out about her calloused fingers and palms. Just because Aiden was gullible, she doubted Dante would be easy to fool, even though he hadn't figured out she was a maid. But then again, she was only a maid, one of many who worked in the Blackthorn palace.     

Dante stopped right under the chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and he turned to look at Anastasia. There was nervousness in her brown, doe-like eyes. He questioned her,     

"Do you know how to dance?"     

Anxious about whether he was trying to catch her in a lie, Anastasia answered, "It would be considered a flaw if I didn't know, Your Highness."     

"It seems like you have trouble only when it comes to tying the belt," Dante remarked, his midnight eyes moving to look at her waist.     

Upon looking down, Anastasia noticed the belt she had earlier fixed had loosened. When she tried to pull her hand away from his to fasten it, the prince's grip around her hand tightened.     

Anastasia's lowered eyes quickly looked up to meet Dante's eyes and heard him say, "Allow me." He tugged on her hand that he was holding, bringing her closer to him.     

"Y—you don't have to do that."     

Standing so close to him in front of everyone, blood rushed up Anastasia's neck and moved up to settle on her cheeks. She was slightly breathless, and her eyes had turned wide. If he wanted to help, he could have offered it when they were on the garden balcony. Why the sudden interest? She asked herself.     

Dante took a step forward with their heads beside each other, and he spoke next to her ear,     

"You said you were trying to evade the suitors with whom your family is trying to set you up. I will help you with it, provided you return the favour." His hand let go of hers, and he settled his hands on both sides of her waist. He continued, "While you are here, which I believe is for the remainder of the two days of the celebration, behave as if you are interested in me, and I will do the same so my family will stop sending women to me. It is a win-win for both of us."     

Two days… Two days was too long, Anastasia thought to herself. Once the sun rose tomorrow, she would have to return to her work. It would be impossible to skip work and spend time with him.     

"Ouch!" Anastasia's hand quickly fell on Dante's chest when she felt a pin prick her waist.     

This man's hands were trained for the battlefield; she doubted he kne—her thoughts stopped when her brown eyes met his black ones, and she saw her reflection in them.     

Dante's intense gaze was enough to tell her that the pinprick wasn't accidental and that it was meant to bring her attention back to him. This man… he wasn't what he appeared to be. She had spent eight years in this palace, and she had never seen this side of him. She softly gulped and answered,     

"I don't think I will be staying until tomorrow, Prince Dante."     

Dante unwound the soft belt from her waist and said, "If it is a matter of your stay, I will be happy to convince your parents to extend your time in the palace."     

Anastasia wished she could disappear right this instant. This was what happened when a person lied! And if her lie was caught, neither she nor her sister would have their heads intact after that. She replied,     

"I don't think they would object to my staying. But I already have plans in the morning till night—"     

"Cancel whatever is there from the evening onwards tomorrow." Dante's words held no room for discussion, and he started to wrap the belt properly back around her waist.     

Anastasia's mouth became dry when she felt Dante's fingers graze around her waist before he tightened the belt. A gasp escaped from her lips as he pulled the belt along with her, bringing her closer to him. Their eyes met again, and he asked in a low voice, "You will cancel it, won't you, Miss Flores?"     

The people around the room watched Dante talk to a young woman from a wealthy family, helping her with her dress, which left most people's mouths hanging open in surprise. Princess Niyasa, who wasn't standing too far from them, said to her sister,     

"I don't think I have seen her before. Who is that young woman?"     

"She looks lovely, doesn't she?" Princess Emily, who was Lady Sophia's daughter, remarked with a smile as they watched their eldest brother share his space with a pretty woman. On noticing her younger brother Aiden make his way towards them from the corner, she asked him curiously, "Do you know who she is, Aiden?"     

Aiden had taken some time to clean the front of his coat and apologise to the guest on whom he had spat his drink. He responded, "That's Tasia." Turning back to look at his brother and the woman he had befriended.     

"What an unusual name," Emily said, smiling. "I wonder where she is from..."     

"I wonder who invited her," Niyasa's eyes narrowed as she stared at the young woman in the emerald dress. "Isn't Brother Dante being a little too intimate with her?"     

"It looks like he is smitten with her," Emily whispered to herself.     

In the meantime, King William and Lady Sophia stared in the direction of the dance floor. King William asked his wife in a low voice,     

"Do you know who Dante is dancing with?"     

Lady Sophia shook her head, and said, "I am not sure. I don't know her. It must have been the Mother Queen who invited her and her family." The old queen liked to do things like this by inviting people without consulting her or her husband, whom they had never met before, and it wasn't the first time.     

On the other hand, Mother Queen Ginger Blackthorn was standing and talking to Minister Aziel with her head turned away from the dance floor. She was on her second glass of wine, and she said,     

"Every year around this time, I miss Johnathan more than I usually do. If only he hadn't gone hunting and been eaten by a tiger," she sighed and shook her head, "I told him not to. Of course, it is another matter that I hunted the tiger and had it hung in the bedroom." The Mother Queen said, "I should go find that girl, Aziel."     

Aziel politely replied, "My Queen, we looked all around the hall, but haven't found her." Was she imagining people now?     

The Mother Queen narrowed her eyes at him after noticing her minister's expression, "I don't believe in ghosts, and I know what I saw. She had beautiful, expressive eyes. My ears seem to have gotten better suddenly," she said thoughtfully, because she could hear the music being played better than before.     

It was then that she noticed the minister's eyes transfixed elsewhere, and she turned her wise self to look in the direction, when her eyes widened. Her grandson was dancing with a woman, and not just any woman, but the one she was looking for!     

"There she is…" The Mother Queen whispered, as a wide smile appeared on her lips. She said to her minister, "My grandson and I seem to have the same taste, Aziel. He found the young woman before I did!"     

The minister's eyebrows rose in surprise. He then heard the Mother Queen murmur, "My son and Sophia did well by inviting the right attendees," and she nodded in approval.     

Back at the dance floor, Anastasia's eyes fell on Dante's lips, which wrapped around the silver pin between his teeth. The one side of his hair that was tousled in front of one of his eyes created a shadow on his face while his eyes were on her belt.     

"Have you decided?" Dante questioned as if he was giving her an option. He took the pin from his lips, and when he pushed the sharp end into the side of her belt, Anastasia quickly answered,     


Dante brought the end of the pin through the fabric before he secured it, "Great. Then we have a deal."     

'What have I gotten myself into…' Anastasia questioned herself, but the question quickly evaporated when Dante placed one of his hands on her waist and brought her near. When he took her other hand in his, she politely returned his earlier question,     

"Do you know how to dance, Prince Dante? We could go slow…" Her eyes were on his, which looked right back at her. For a fleeting moment, she noticed a faint smile on his lips that disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, making her question if she had imagined it.     

Instead of responding to Anastasia, when the music shifted from a slower to a faster tempo, Dante stepped forward, which had her step backwards. When he moved back, she followed him. Before she could step back, he stepped forward, bringing them closer to each other, and she had to crane her neck to not break eye contact with him.     

The next moment, Dante took a swift step away from Anastasia before releasing her waist and having her twirl to return to his arms.     

Anastasia's heart pounded, breathless over his actions. She heard Dante ask her, "Slow enough?"     


After the dance floor( Chapter 22)

The soft music playing in one corner of the hall spread across the main hall, spilling into the nearby corridors. Anastasia kept up with Dante's footwork as they moved around the dance floor. Their eyes stayed on each other while ignoring the curious gazes of the world that watched them.     
Anastasia was grateful to Marianne, because if it weren't for her sister's teaching, she was sure that she would have stomped on the prince's foot by now.     

She felt the air leave her chest when Dante's fingers and hands grazed around her waist right after she twirled to return to his arms. He was a man whose hands were accustomed to holding weapons and killing men on the battlefield, but now she was in reverence that he was also skilled in the art of leading a woman on the dance floor.     

"You look surprised," Dante remarked as they continued to dance.     

Anastasia replied in her soft voice that caught Dante's attention, "I never would have guessed that you were well-versed when it came to the art of dance."     

A slight smile appeared on Dante's lips, his eyes holding humour, but it didn't change much of his serious expression. He replied,     

"When you have two sisters who are of age, and they are required to have exceptional footwork, sometimes you end up practising with them." Dante raised their hands before he placed one of his hands behind his neck, and she did the same as they stepped clockwise and counterclockwise where they danced. He asked her, "You seem to be acquainted with one of my brothers. Do you have siblings, Miss Flores?"     

Marianne! Anastasia was so lost in what was happening that she had forgotten about her sister in the room. Her eyes moved to look at the crowd, and she noticed her sister, who wore a shocked expression.     

At the same time, her and Dante's hands dropped to their sides briefly before his right hand snaked around her waist and settled on her back. He then pulled her towards him, which made Anastasia look back at him. She answered him,     

"An elder sister. But she couldn't make it to the celebration," Anastasia added, to avoid meeting Marianne. Her sister was a known face among the royal family and court members. When he continued to stare at her, she explained, "She's allergic to the sand and the hot weather."     

Though Anastasia had agreed to Dante's deal, she realised she didn't have to stick with it. After all, this person named Tasia, who belonged to a wealthy family, didn't exist, and she could go back to her maid duties once this night ended. She doubted that Dante would hunt her down. Would he?     

"Don't even think about it," Dante warned her, with his eyes slightly narrowed at her.     

"What?" Anastasia felt her stomach slightly drop at his daunting eyes directed at her.     

"You have eyes that speak volumes, more than the words that leave your lips."     

Dante looked at the young woman's eyes, darkened with kohl at the edges of her eyelids. He pushed her away from him and then pulled her back to him, having her twirl with her gown skirt spreading wide before she returned to him.     

This time, Anastasia's back touched Dante's front, and his breath fell on her ear. She softly gulped when her eyes finally fell on the guests looking at them, and she whispered,     

"There are people staring."     

"Isn't that why we are here? Don't worry, I am not a man who will tarnish a woman's reputation," and though Dante said it, his action spoke otherwise, as his breath against her ear raised goosebumps on her skin.     

Dante slowly released her from his hold. Anastasia turned around to face him and meet his eyes. She was no longer holding onto a rope but hanging by a thread that was going to break at any moment. Thankfully, when the music came to an end, they offered each other a polite bow.     

Once she stepped out of this place, she would no longer be Tasia the guest, and would disappear in thin air. She internally apologised to the prince, even though he had subtly warned her.     

Anastasia's feet were quick to step away from the dance floor, but before she could quietly escape from the hall, someone ordered,     

"Stop right there. The young lady in the green gown."     

Anastasia's footsteps froze, and she gingerly turned around to face the Mother Queen. She offered a deep bow to the older woman, who slowly made her way with her staff clicking on the marble floor, and her minister followed closely behind her.     

"My Queen!" Anastasia greeted the woman. Her already pounding heart was ready to jump out of her throat.     

"Where did you disappear to earlier? I have been looking for you," the Mother Queen said, raising her eyebrows.     

"I forgot to fetch something from my room and then got busy with something else. Forgive me for my rude behaviour," Anastasia apologised to the Mother Queen, who stared at her with slightly narrowed eyes before a smile spread on her lips.     

"My grandson must have occupied your time," The Mother Queen laughed and asked, "What is your name, girl?"     

"Tasia Flores, my Queen," Anastasia noticed her sister standing at the far back, who wore a look of worry.     

"Tasia…" The Mother Queen repeated her name as if to memorise it well, and she waved her hand, "Come here. Let me take a closer look at you."     

Anastasia took careful steps towards the Mother Queen and bent her knees. She was taken aback when the old woman's hand shot up to hold her chin and turned it left and right before she hummed.     

"It is decided, Aziel. Miss Flores will be the first one to give me my great-grandchild," the Mother Queen said with a satisfied tone.     

"Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself, grandmother?" Dante remarked, as he took long strides to make his way towards where they stood.     

"Oh, hush! When your grandfather and I were your age, we already had three children and were always active, if you know what I mean," came the unfiltered words of the Mother Queen, and Anastasia's cheeks turned pink, which were hidden behind the translucent veil.     

Aziel coughed as if to bring the old woman back on track. But upon noticing her grandson's stare, the Mother Queen said, "What? It is the best age to have children and keep the romance alive."     

Dante replied to his grandmother, "I think it would be best for you to not overwhelm Miss Flores with such thoughts, when we are only getting to know each other."     

The Mother Queen gave a nod as if agreeing with Dante, and then stated, "I knew the moment I laid my eyes on her that she was the one. Don't I have a good eye?" She looked pleased. She then turned to look at Anastasia and said,     

"I usually have my tea after noon. Join me tomorrow."     

Blood drained from Anastasia's face, and her little heart was trying hard not to faint from the stress she was putting herself under. How was she going to do that? Earlier, it appeared easier to disappear from Dante's eyes, but this time, the Mother Queen demanded her attention. Even though she didn't know how that was going to happen, she obliged with a bow,     

"I feel privileged by your invitation, my Queen. It would make me more than happy to join you."     

"Wonderful! I look forward to it," the Mother Queen remarked, and Anastasia internally prayed in her head, 'Please don't look forward to it.'     

"Pardon me, my Queen, I would like to be excused," Anastasia offered a bow.     

The Mother Queen nodded before turning to look at her grandson and saying, "Dante, why don't you escort Tasia? We wouldn't want anyone to steal her," she joked.     

"Of course, grandmother," Dante was respectful to his grandmother's words. Leaning forward, he gave her an airy kiss next to her cheek. He then turned to look at Anastasia and said, "Shall we, Tasia?"     

Without missing a beat, Anastasia nodded.     

Offering a bow to the Mother Queen, Anastasia stepped out of the main hall, accompanied by Dante. Some of the guests, who stood outside the main hall in the garden and corridors, offered a bow upon seeing Dante. A few glanced curiously at the young woman next to the first prince.     

When they reached another corridor, Anastasia slowed down her footsteps and said to Dante, "Thank you for escorting me, Prince Dante. I will be… visiting the powder room." She needed to go back to the library to change her clothes and return to the servants' quarters.     

Dante's footsteps came to a halt. He turned to look at her, and his demeanour turned cold, "About my grandmother, you don't have to meet her tomorrow. It would be best for her to not invest her hope in a lie. I know how to keep her busy, and I am sure you have your own plans."     

Anastasia was grateful for his words and replied, "I do… Thank you."     

"I will see you here tomorrow evening, Miss Flores," Dante offered a slight bow before walking past her, as he wasn't planning to spend the rest of his night at the main hall.     

Once Prince Dante was out of her sight, Anastasia walked quickly. But before she could get far away from the main hall, from the opposite direction of the open corridor, walked Princess Niyasa, Princess Emily and the guest whom Anastasia had attended this noon, Lady Amara Lumbard. Each of the women were accompanied by their maid, and one of the maids was Charlotte.     

Before Anastasia could find a hiding place, Princess Niyasa commented, "You seem to be the talk of the celebration tonight. We haven't met before."     

Anastasia still had little wounds on the back of her fingers that the youngest princess had caused. She clutched her hands closely to her sides and offered a tight smile. Feeling Charlotte's stare, she felt sweat trickle from the nape of her neck. She offered a polite bow and greeted,     

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Princess Niyasa. Princess Emily. I am Tasia Flores," and during that time, Lady Amara quietly glared at Anastasia for snatching Prince Dante right under her nose.     

Though Anastasia had never interacted with Princess Emily, she was the kindest princess and the opposite of Princess Niyasa. She was beautiful with her auburn hair and hazel eyes. Princess Emily complimented her with a warm smile,     

"I love your gown, it looks like it was made for you. I look forward to having my seamstress design it like that, but in a different colour."     

"A praise coming from a beautiful princess like yourself means a lot to me, Princess Emily," Anastasia had never been complimented except by Marianne, and she could only thank her sister for the way she looked tonight.     

"Please call me Emily," Princess Emily insisted, and she said, "I am sure that soon our titles won't matter."     

"Hold your thoughts, Lily," Princess Niyasa said to her sister, adding, "They have only begun courting. And Amara hasn't given up on Brother Dante," she turned to her friend and offered an encouraging smile. "Anyways, we have to get back to the main hall. I am going to show my maid's sketches to everyone."     

Her sketches… Anastasia thought. Her eyes briefly glanced at Charlotte, who was proudly carrying the parchments as if she was the one to draw them.     

"Would you like to join us? The more, the merrier," Princess Emily asked Anastasia, wanting to know more about the woman whom Brother Dante had danced with.     

"Forgive me, but I am tired and would like to retire for the night," Anastasia apologised and said, "I hope all of you enjoy the rest of your night."     

Anastasia walked past them, and after taking a few steps, she slowly turned, noticing the three young women leave the corridor with their maids. A sigh escaped from her lips.     

Not wasting another second, Anastasia quickly grabbed the front of her skirt and hurriedly walked to the library. Entering it, she made her way up the stairs. Going to the rack where she had placed her dress earlier, she noticed it missing. It was also the dress that Charlotte had given her.     

"Was it on the other rack?" Anastasia murmured, before looking at the next rack in front and the one behind. She started to search for it, but not finding it on the top floor, she climbed down the stairs.     

"Anna!" Marianne arrived at the library, quickly making her way to where her sister stood. "I was so worried earlier when yo— What happened?" She asked with a frown, noticing the tense look on her sister's face.     

"The dress, it's missing… Someone must have taken it," Anastasia replied in dread. She needed to change into her regular lowly clothes, as she couldn't walk back to her room in her current attire.     

Marianne placed her hand on her sister's arm and said, "I will go to your room and get your clothes here. Stay right here, okay?"     

Anastasia stood behind one of the racks while Marianne approached the door, when suddenly someone opened it wide. It was Mr. Gilbert, the head in charge of the servants, who had shown up at the door. His eyes narrowed at her presence in here at this hour and he demanded,     

"What is a courtesan doing in the library at this hour?"     


Changing fabrics in the library( Chapter 23)

Marianne's face turned pale at Mr. Gilbert's presence before her, who stood at the front of the library room. With the ongoing celebration, she had hoped that none of the guests or servants, including this man, would come to this side of the palace.     
Though Norrix Gilbert was not in charge of the courtesans and concubines, he knew everyone by name, and Marianne was no stranger to him, especially when she was one of the sought-after courtesans from Paradise Tower.     

Mr. Gilbert looked at Marianne suspiciously and asked, "Why aren't you at the main hall with the rest of them?" His eyes moved to look behind her at the deserted library.     

Marianne put on her charming smile and responded, "Mr. Sinclair wanted to take a look at the books in here, and we spent a little time together." Which she had done, but only for a brief moment in the corridor before she had stepped inside the library.     

"And why is it that I don't see Mr. Sinclair here?" Mr. Gilbert questioned her. After what happened recently with the courtesan Irene, the people in charge had become more strict so that the incident wouldn't repeat itself.     

"He left me by myself… to fix my dress and my appearance," Marianne gave a believable lie, and she smoothened the front of her dress.     

On the other hand, Anastasia could feel sweat trickle down her spine. She quickly peeked through the gap between the books, noticing Mr. Gilbert continue to question her sister and not budge from there. One evening was all it took for them to build a castle of lies, and she was worried it would blow apart at any moment.     

Now in a complicated situation, Anastasia wondered how she was going to get to the servants' quarters if Mr. Gilbert escorted Marianne back to the main hall. Both the sisters' hearts dropped when Mr. Gilbert stepped inside the library.     

'Please, God, help us,' Anastasia's lips moved without her voice spilling out. 'If only my earlier clothes hadn't gone missing.'     

As the thought crossed Anastasia's mind, she felt a little tickle on her shoulder and looked down at the green gown she was wearing. Her eyebrows furrowed, and her eyes then widened when she saw the colour beginning to change from green to brown. It stopped changing when it turned to a faded maroon. The dress's material changed from expensive silk to worn-out cotton fabric.     

It took Anastasia two seconds to realise that the gown was transforming into her maid attire, with a white full-sleeved inner petticoat over the sleeveless maroon dress.     

Not knowing what and how it happened, at the same time, Anastasia heard Mr. Gilbert and Marianne's footsteps getting closer to where she stood. Standing between two racks and the wall obstructing one side, she did what she thought could save their skin. She removed the hanging earrings and slipped them into her dress pocket. She quickly untangled her hair and braided it before pinning it into a bun.     

Wetting her lips, she rubbed the colour off them before she brought the fringes of her hair forward to hide her eyes.     

Marianne, who followed Mr. Gilbert was more than stressed. She cursed herself for thinking that she and her sister could get away with their little dress-up. When they reached the rack where she had left her sister, her heart thudded loudly in her chest.     

Her eyes then fell on her sister, wearing the maid dress, who had her back turned and was cleaning the floor with a rag. Did Anna find the dress?     

Mr. Gilbert noticed the back of the lowly maid, who was cleaning the floor and demanded, "Don't you know that the lowly maids are not allowed to step foot in here or anywhere near the inner heart of the palace unless asked to?"     

"Mr. Sinclair spilled something on the floor earlier. The spot needed a little attention, so I asked the maid to come and clean it. Forgive me," Marianne apologised with a bow before raising her head.     

Mr. Gilbert knew the business that took place between the courtesans and the guests in closed spaces. He could only guess that the 'spilt' here belonged to Mr. Sinclair. He stated,     

"The maid will take care of cleaning it. I will escort you back to the main hall where you will be needed." He then turned to look at Anastasia and instructed, "You. Once you are done, go straight to the servants' quarters. You won't be needed for the rest of the night."     

Anastasia bowed her already lowered head without raising her face to show her eyes darkened by the kohl and the makeup Marianne had put on her. She waited for the two of them to step out of the library, and once they were out of sight, she released the breath that she had been holding until now.     

Standing up straight, she then looked down at her dress, touching it in awe and whispering, "You are no ordinary dress…"     

Back in the main hall, where the celebration continued with the royal members of the Blackthorn family and their guests, delicious delicacies of food and drinks were served on the tables under the smaller chandeliers. The hall appeared to be illuminated in gold because of its decorations. Hookah pots were placed at the tables, where the pieces of coal burned brightly while the water at the bottom of the pot gurgled with bubbles.     

King William, Lady Sophia and the Mother Queen sat at one of the tables. Lady Sophia noticed Princess Niyasa walking around the room and called her daughter over by raising her hand.     

"Yes, mother?" Emily asked by coming to stand next to her mother.     

"What is Niyasa doing?" Lady Sophia asked.     

Emily turned to look at her sister, who was one year younger than her, and answered, "She wants to show the artworks made by one of her maids, mother. They are exceptional and very otherworldly. She was preparing them for your birthday."     

Lady Sophia looked pleased on hearing it, but the next moment she asked, "And what about you, Emily? The maids you pick seem to possess no talent, like you, or are you planning to keep it a surprise?" Her words were harsh towards her daughter, whose smile faltered. "Your brother gave me a piece of rusted metal as a gift. I am not sure what to do with the two of you."     

"The things I am skilled at are not the ones you approve of, Mother," Emily politely replied with a smile.     

Lady Sophia sighed, which was when the King interfered, "Don't be hard on Emily, Sophia. Once she gets married to an amiable man of our choice, there won't be any need for her to be adept at such things."     

At the same time, Niyasa appeared at their table, and she offered a deep bow. She spoke to Lady Sophia, "Queen Sophia, I would like some of your time if you allow me. I would like to show you beautiful sketches of landscapes."     

On the other hand, the Mother Queen muttered under her breath, "Some of my grandchildren fell short of talent."     

Lady Sophia smiled at the mention of her new title, and she stood up from her seat before walking with Niyasa to where the sketches were displayed. The guests stared at and praised the sketches that were on display. The recently elevated lady remarked,     

"These are indeed eye-catching. I don't think I have seen anything like them before."     

Niyasa smiled and said, "I prepared them especially for this night. I hope it pleases your eyes."     

"Aren't you thoughtful, Niyasa. You have a good eye," Lady Sophia praised before questioning, "And who is this talented artist?" Charlotte came forward and offered a bow. She was giddy from all the attention and praise she had received. She couldn't be any happier to be among the wealthy men and women. Lady Sophia remarked, "So it is you that Niyasa has found. A hidden gem in the dirt."     

Charlotte didn't respond but continued to bow with a smile.     

"It must be nice to have a maid who can draw this well," one of the guests, who stood near them, commented. Maids were nothing more than accessories to the wealthy, who liked to show off their servants as if they were pets or things to flaunt.     

Lady Sophia slipped her hand into her dress pocket and took out a single gold coin. She stretched her hand forward and dropped the coin into the eager maid's palm. Staring at a sketch of a bridge, she stated, "I would like to have a sketch of me made by tomorrow."     

Charlotte's smile immediately fell. Her voice shook a little as she said, "Forgive me, milady. These are my old drawings. I stopped drawing three years ago."     

Lady Sophia ignored the maid's words and claimed, "Talent is not something you lose with time. Make sure I am sitting on a couch with my hand resting below my chin. Your fare has been paid, it should be enough motivation," she smiled slightly.     ______________


One last time (Chapter 24)

Music Recommendation: Les Arbes - Thomas Newton     

When Anastasia entered the rear of the kitchen, some of the servants were busy cooking food and sending another set of servants to serve the dishes to the guests all across the palace. Theresa was wiping the island slab when her eyes fell on the young woman, and her eyebrows furrowed.     

Dropping what she was doing, she quickly walked outside to meet Anastasia and was about to ask what she was doing here, but instead asked,     

"Is that kohl?"     

Anastasia nodded. She moved her hands to ask Theresa, 'Do you know how to remove this?'     

Theresa pursed her lips before nodding. She said, "Go to the stable. I will see you there."     

After waiting at the stable for a while, Anastasia watched Theresa walk towards her with a bowl and the softest cloth she could get her hands on. With no one around and only a lamp burning at their side, the older woman asked,     

"I thought you were going to leave, what happened? Did the guards stop you?" She then said, "Sit here."     

Anastasia whispered, "What is that?" Eyeing the bowl.     

"It is warm water," Theresa dipped the cloth before angling Anastasia's face.     

"Mary doesn't want to come home with me. She wants to stay here, and I didn't know what else to do but stay behind for now," Anastasia answered the earlier question.     

"I thought this might happen," Theresa sighed. She said, "Mary is a courtesan whose thoughts have been conditioned to make her stay in the royal palace. It would be hard to leave."     

Anastasia opened her eyes wide while Theresa gently erased the kohl away from her eyelids. Once it was done, she thanked Theresa, "Thank you, Auntie," and sighed. She said, "I feel bad for not considering how Mary was feeling, going too far ahead without her. She said Prince Maxwell loves her, and she loves him back."     

"Oh dear…" Theresa whispered, a frown coming to settle on her forehead. It was because she had heard such words many times before through others, words of promises that were rarely fulfilled.     

"I went to the main hall today to see if it was true, but I am unsure what to deduce about their relationship. I didn't get to talk to Mary after that. Something else happened in the evening…" Anastasia drawled before explaining everything that had taken place, while Theresa covered her mouth, dumbstruck.     

"What have you both done, Anna?" Theresa questioned with wide eyes. "If the royal family members or anyone else finds out that you lied! If they find out that you are a maid of the palace, they won't take it kindly."     

Anastasia bit her bottom lip and confessed, "We didn't expect things to take such a turn. It was supposed to be me attending the celebration only to keep an eye on Mary and Prince Maxwell," she said in a low voice. She stared at one end of the stable passage and said, "I should have left… but at the same time, I can't until I know she is in good hands."     

Theresa's stern gaze softened on noticing Anastasia's shoulders droop. She placed her hands on the young woman's shoulders and said,     

"Sometimes, I don't know if it is a curse or a blessing. For you two sisters to share such a close bond. After you two were split up to live two different lives, I thought one of you would turn bitter and envy the other. Because people always find the grass is greener on another field, but you both hold such a strong bond and are so attached to each other," a tender smile appeared on the older woman's lips.     

With the two girls torn away from their parents and far away from home, it was understandable to Theresa that the sisters had clung to each other for support.     

"What do you plan to do tomorrow?" Theresa asked her.     

"Lie some more…" Anastasia replied with a sad smile. "The prince said I would only have to show up in the evening."     

Theresa nodded, "Then let us do what we did today. We managed it fine, didn't we? After all, it is only a matter of two evenings. I will tell Mr. Gilbert that you are sick if he or anyone else asks." She patted Anastasia's shoulder, "I am here with you. You don't have to worry about it all by yourself."     

"I don't know how to thank you, Auntie," Anastasia was sad about losing the maid dress because it contained coins that Theresa had given her. She said, "I promise to return them to you."     

"We don't have to worry about it now, when there are other pressing things that need attention. I am just glad that both of you girls are safe. I was counting every minute since you left," Theresa exhaled before she smiled, "Why don't you tell me about the celebration, as I have never had the chance to attend it?"     

They went back to the kitchen, where Anastasia helped Theresa with all the work she could, as she felt guilty for losing the older woman's hard-earned money. After finishing her work, she made her way back to her quarters.     

But when she opened the door, someone was already present in the room.     

"Anna! How are you doing?" Charlotte asked her with a smile, sitting on her bed. "I was waiting for your return."     

Anastasia carefully stepped inside her room, her heart racing a little when Charlotte stared at her. She moved her hands to reply, 'I am doing good. How about you?'     

"I attended the celebration at the main hall tonight. The one which we always spoke and were curious about," Charlotte replied with a friendly demeanour. She said, "It was very grand and better than what I imagined it to be. The hall itself was like heaven, and the people wore such expensive dresses."     

It seemed like Charlotte's dream of being around the wealthy had come true by promoting herself from a lowly maid to a personal maid of a princess. Anastasia stared at her before asking,     

'Is there something you want? I want to rest as I am tired.'     

Anastasia had a long and hard day filled with anxiousness, which was her own fault. Right now, all she wanted was to crawl into her bed.     

Charlotte stood up from the bed by pushing her hands on the hard mattress. She then said,     

"I wanted to apologise to you about something. Your sketches, I took them from you without your permission. You were hiding something so precious, and I wanted to show it to the princess. But then she thought I made them, and one thing led to another…" her voice lowered at the end.     

So this was why she was here, Anastasia thought to herself. Her jaws clenched, but she didn't react to Charlotte's words.     

Charlotte then said, "I noticed that you haven't drawn anything lately…"     

Anastasia raised her hands and responded, 'You mean you checked to see if you could steal them too.'     

"You are angry," Charlotte softly laughed, and Anastasia couldn't believe that there was a time when she thought this person was kind. "I understand that, but I need you to sketch Queen Sophia. It is urgent. She wants her hand un—"     


Anastasia pushed the door wider and stepped aside to make way for Charlotte.     

The smile on Charlotte's face slipped, andwhich was replaced by desperation. Though she walked towards the door, instead of stepping outside, she closed the door so that she could convince Anastasia.     

"Don't do this to me, Anna… We have been friends for so long, and I need your help now. If I don't give Queen Sophia what she asked, she will behead me. I thought they wouldn't make me draw, but I was wrong and need your help," Charlotte quickly begged Anastasia, with terror in her eyes.     

Anastasia wanted to say that it was what happened when a person lied, but then she had lied about more than one thing tonight.     

Seeing Anastasia not respond, Charlotte quickly got on her knees with tears in her eyes. She beseeched,     

"Please, Anna! I don't ask much! I brought you coal and fresh parchments. Only one sketch of Lady Sophia, and I won't ask anything more from you. I will do anything you ask me to."     

But Anastasia didn't believe Charlotte. She also realised how easy it was for trust to be broken, and somehow, the person on the ground reflected her future worries.     

Charlotte stared at Anastasia with a pleading look and caught Anastasia's feet, "Please, Anna, I don't want to die! Please help me." She cried, "Wait! I know what will help." Her hands fumbled in her dress pockets before pulling out a gold coin.     

Anastasia's eyes slightly widened on seeing the gold coin.     

"I will give you this gold coin. All yours, and in return, I want Queen Sophia's sketch from you by tomorrow. I promise not to take it back from you!"     

Though Anastasia had nothing to lose or gain by drawing or not drawing, she didn't see why she couldn't use the gold coin, especially when she had lost the eighteen buckles that Theresa had generously given her.     

Charlotte's face was smeared with tears, and Anastasia knew that the person was desperate to save her neck, which she hadn't thought about before. Even though Anastasia was disappointed with Charlotte's actions, it didn't mean she wished death upon her.     

Anastasia didn't want to be responsible for someone's death and blood on her hands... She doubted she could live with it.     

In some way, Charlotte was paying for what she had taken from her, and settling with that thought, Anastasia took the coin from the woman.     

'I will draw it for you. Just this once,' Anastasia moved her hands while staring at Charlotte. But she didn't stop there as she continued, 'But if you steal the coin or blame me in any way, I will not protect your lie.'     

Charlotte's look of worry and dread disappeared instantly, and a broad smile appeared on her face. She nodded eagerly and replied, "I swear on my life I won't steal your coin. Thank you, Anna! Thank you so much!"     

'Leave now,' Anastasia turned to the door. Just because she had agreed didn't mean they were back to being friends.     

"I will come to collect the sketch in the morning then," Charlotte replied, leaving Anastasia alone.     



Hands of the lowly maid(Chapter 25)

When Charlotte left, Anastasia closed the door and placed the little pot in her room against the door so that she would know if someone would enter. Alone now, she removed her dress, the same green dress that had turned maroon.     
Placing the dress on the bed, Anastasia ran her hand over it.     

A gasp escaped her lips when she noticed the dress turn into a plain white night dress, leaving her in shock.     

"I should speak to Mary about this," Anastasia said to herself. This dress seemed to be able to transform, and it was changing according to what she wanted, which on some level, scared yet excited her.     

Anastasia quickly grabbed the dress and put it on once again. She said, "Turn into a soft nightgown made of satin…"     

She noticed the fabric beginning to change, and from cotton fabric, it turned to satin under her touch.     

Removing the dress again, she looked at the fabric closely when her eyes caught sight of something written beneath the hem of the dress— Wash it after the fifth change of dress. Clean, fountain water only.     

Anastasia wondered how this dress had come to be in this palace and how had it been left untouched and abandoned. Unless no one knew about it. She doubted that what Marianne had known about the dress was true. Hiding the magical dress between her other clothes, she said,     

"Looks like I don't have to worry about what to wear tomorrow."     

Anastasia then placed the burning lamp on the floor, along with a clean new parchment and charcoal pieces. Sitting on the floor of her room, she tried to recall Lady Sophia Blackthorn before she began to sketch with all her concentration. Hours passed, and the stress she had been carrying until that moment started to dissolve.     

Even though tired, Anastasia stayed awake as she enjoyed what she was doing. She continued to sketch until the wake of dawn. When she finished sketching, she finally pulled herself back to sit straight, feeling her back ache.     

"Finally, it is done," Anastasia said, raising the charcoal drawing from the floor and looking at the sketch of Queen Sophia.     

When she heard someone's footsteps in the corridor, she leaned forward and blew the flame of the lamp she had left burning the entire night.     

Someone knocked on the surface of her door, and she heard Charlotte's voice, "Anna, are you done?"     

Anastasia was so tired that, for a moment, she forgot that Charlotte didn't know that she could speak, and she parted her lips to answer. But Charlotte woke her sleepy self up when she pushed open the door, and the pot resting against it fell and rolled over. The maid said,     

"I am so stupid to be waiting for you to reply to me from behind the door."     

Anastasia stretched her hand and handed the parchment to Charlotte.     

"You finished it?" Even though Charlotte didn't see how it had come out, she was in awe. She said, "Thank you for saving my life, Anna! I will see you later then?" And the maid closed the door behind her as she left the room.     

Anastasia realised she had sacrificed her sleep for a gold coin. She closed her eyes for two minutes when the door of her room burst open for the second time, and it was one of the senior maids, who scolded her,     

"What are you doing sleeping in when the sun is about to rise?! Out of bed! There's so much work to do before everyone wakes up," she clapped her hands before walking to the next maid's room.     

Anastasia stared at the door and softly whined, "Kill me…"     

Anastasia decided to wear the magical dress, turning it back to the lowly maid dress and tied her hair into a tight bun after braiding her hair. She made sure that her alter ego, Tasia, and the maid, Anastasia, had two different styles so that no one would ever recognise her.     

In the kitchen, Anastasia moved to where the water was and washed her hands to get rid of the charcoal powder.     

Mr. Gilbert entered the kitchen and said to the maids,     

"All the maids who were assigned to serve the guests, you are to head to their rooms and offer them morning refreshments after your first duties. Make sure when you draw the bath the water is warm enough but not cold. Make sure to see to it that every request of theirs is fulfilled, and I don't want to hear any complaints," he said, looking at each one of them.     

The maids bowed in compliance, and Mr. Gilbert then moved to speak to the kitchen staff about what to prepare for lunch while the maids got on with their early morning duties.     

Anastasia and Theresa made their way to clean the floors. On noticing Anastasia yawn and stare into space, the older woman asked,     

"Did you not get enough sleep last night?"     

"I didn't sleep…" came the tired words from Anastasia.     

"Why not? I told you we have everything covered," Theresa frowned, and she then asked, "Are you falling ill for real?!"     

Anastasia shook her head and widened her eyes, which only turned small. She brought her hand to cover her mouth, before which a big yawn had escaped from her lips and a small pool of tears formed in the corner of her eyes. She replied,     

"No, I am just sleepy," Anastasia said, and she looked at the corridor, where there was only a male servant who was fixing fresh candles on the stands at the other end of the corridor. She stepped closer to Theresa and whispered, "Give me your hand."     

When Theresa brought her hand forward, Anastasia turned it around before placing the gold coin in the older woman's hand. Theresa's eyes widened, and she asked, "Where did you find it?!"     

"Charlotte gave this to me in return for the drawings. This is for you," Anastasia said with a smile. Right now, she had no use for the coin and wanted to return the money she owed the older woman.     

Theresa shook her head, staring at the coin. She looked up at Anastasia and said, "I cannot take it, Anna. It is too much for a person like me."     

"I think it is too little for a person like you," Anastasia replied in a lowered voice. Theresa had helped her when she needed it. She doubted the others would have done the same for her, and she said smiling, "If I ever need to borrow it, I will ask you."     

Theresa had never held a gold coin before and was in awe. She asked, "Are you sure?"     

"Mm," Anastasia nodded, and she felt good giving the coin to the older woman. She heard the woman say,     

"I won't use it, but I will keep it safe until you need it. So that we don't have another robbery incident, no?" And Anastasia couldn't agree more because Charlotte wasn't the person they thought they knew.     

Finishing their work there, Anastasia and Theresa went back to the kitchen and then carried juice and snacks to Lady Amara Lumbard's room.     

Theresa softly knocked on the door with her free hand, while Anastasia carried the tray containing a jug of freshly squeezed orange juice and morning snacks made just this morning.     

"Milady, we are coming in," Theresa didn't speak too loudly before she turned the doorknob and entered the room.     

Anastasia, who was about to step inside the room, heard one of the doors unlock and noticed Dante step out of his room, who was already presentable. He wore a dark brown jacket over his clean white shirt. Before he could notice her, she quickly slipped inside Lady Amara's room and kicked the door closed, which banged louder than she had expected.     

"Ah, who is disturbing my sleep?!" Came Lady Amara's sleepy voice, who was still in her bed.     

Theresa quickly apologised, "Forgive me, milady! Would you like to have tea or juice? You are expected to join the royal family for breakfast soon." She then turned to look at Anastasia on what she was trying to do, who mouthed 'sorry.'     

Anastasia quickly placed the tray on the table and went near the windows before pulling the ropes to draw the curtains away from each other.     

Lady Amara pushed the blanket off her body and yawned, "Why is the morning so early here? Bring me a glass of juice and snacks too."     

Theresa brought the tray towards the bedside and was pouring the juice into a glass when the door opened. It was Mrs. Lumbard, who was already dressed with hair styled with three roses pinned in a line.     

"Take that away," Mrs. Lumbard ordered the older maid, who was about to hand the juice to her daughter.     

The young lady frowned and said, "I am hungry. I need to eat and drink something."     

"You ate more than enough last night to last you until lunch. We need you to look lean," Mrs. Lumbard turned to the maids and said, "Prepare the bath. There are fragrance oils in the cupboard. Pour them into the water. We need Amara to smell like a flower today!"     

The two maids bowed and walked over to the bathtub, turning the faucet and soon water began to fill the tub. Anastasia went to the cupboard and grabbed the fragrance oils before returning to the bathtub. They heard the conversation between the mother and daughter.     

"Amara, you need to capture Prince Aiden. Not Prince Dante, who is of no use. Not to mention you failed terribly at gaining his attention," Mrs. Lumbard scolded her daughter for her failed skill.     

"But Prince Aiden is younger than me, and I like Prince Dante. I think I have fallen in love with him because my heart doesn't stop beating loudly in his presence," Lady Amara expressed with a smitten look, but then her expression turned sour. "If only that Tasia or whatever hadn't shown up at the celebration."     

"It would be better if her eyes were on the useless prince. Could you imagine what would happen if Prince Aiden took her to the dance floor?" Mrs. Lumbard asked, before continuing with a huff, "I can't believe she tried to outshine your presence."     

"Mother!" Lady Amara shouted to gain her mother's attention, as her mother wasn't listening. "I am not giving up on Prince Dante. He is the one I chose as my husband. I can feel these intense emotions in me, and I might turn out to be his Crux."     

Mrs. Lumbard gave it a thought before she said, "Touch him once. If nothing happens, you give up on him."     

Though Anastasia's back was facing the mother-daughter duo, she pursed her lips because this wasn't going to end well. But then again, at the same time, she remembered Dante's hands around her waist and hands, pulling and pushing her, which made her heart shudder.     

Lady Amara pulled the string off her dress, which pooled at her feet. Naked now, she walked towards the bathtub, stepping inside it and immersing herself in the water.     

"These bath oils smells amazing, Mother," Lady Amara hummed. She raised her hands so that the maids could start washing her.     

"They do," Mrs. Lumbard agreed and said, "No one will be able to resist you."     

Theresa picked up the little mug, while Anastasia lifted Lady Amara's hand. She was about to rub the soap on the young woman's hand when Lady Amara whimpered,     

"What do you think you are doing?!" Lady Amara splashed the water from the bathtub on her.     

"What happened??" Mrs. Lumbard hurried towards the bathtub. She glared at Anastasia and grabbed her hand harshly. She demanded, "What did you do to my daughter?"     

Theresa turned startled, as she was right there and she saw nothing happen. On the other hand, Anastasia winced at Mrs. Lumbard's iron grip that only tightened with furious eyes glaring at her.     

Lady Amara frowned before complaining, "I don't want this maid touching my skin. Why is it so coarse? It makes my skin crawl." She took a look at her hand before shifting her eyes to Theresa and ordering. "You will wash me, not her."     

Mrs. Lumbard let go of Anastasia's hand and ordered, "Don't touch my daughter with your hideous hands. Her skin must be in good hands as she will be marrying into a family of high status, and should not be touched by someone repulsive. You can pour the water instead."     

Anastasia felt her cheeks burned at the woman's remarks. Her eyes prickled, but she blinked them away.