✍️✍️✍️✍️ Garden Of Poison Chapter 51 - 55 Complete Chapters ✍️✍️✍️✍️



Pulled into the shadow (Chapter 51)

A thank you to readers- Astrid_Nymp, Namelesone, Aoi_hoshi_cath and shiru who have been editing and proofreading the chapters of GOP for a smoother read <3     

When it was nighttime and everyone had retired to their rooms, hours after the moon had gone up in the sky, Anastasia woke up in her room with a soft gasp. Her body was wet with sweat. Sitting on the edge of the bed, her feet dangled in the air, and she sighed before covering her face with her hands, even though it was dark.      

Every night, she dreamed of seeing her sister, ready to escape various scenarios but never making it out. And she always woke from her dreams with her sister covered in blood.      

"I can't leave without knowing what happened to you that day. I can't," Anastasia whispered to herself.      

She could never live in peace without knowing why her sister had died. She wondered how much pain Marianne had been in even when she was dying, with the wounds she had received.      

Her hand reached out for the glass of water on the floor, but when she picked it up, she realised it was empty. Taking it with her, she made her way out of her room and into the kitchen. She poured herself some water from the pot, quenched her thirst and left.      

Anastasia was too engrossed in her thoughts to realise that she had failed to return to her room and had walked past the servants' quarters, only to end up near the Paradise Tower. She now stared at the stairs. She would always come here to meet and talk to her sister.     

But when she got closer to the stairs, her eyes fell on the courtesan's head hanging at the front. With three days having passed since the coronation, the head had begun to shrivel and darken. The sight caught her off guard, and she parted her lips, only for her mouth to be covered by a large hand.      

Alarmed, Anastasia began to struggle, and the handhold turned firmer. She heard Dante's words brush against her ear.      

"You seem to enjoy walking in the night a little too much, don't you?"      

Anastasia felt Dante pull her back into the shadows, with his other hand wrapped around her waist from behind. Her cheeks burned bright, and she felt her back pressing on his firm chest.      

"Keep quiet."     

Suddenly she heard someone's footsteps softly echo through the corridor before revealing King Maxwell, who had reached the bottom of the tower's stairs. Her eyebrows furrowed, wondering what he was doing here at this hour of the night. The king stared at the stairs for a long time, and for a moment, it looked like he was going to climb them, but instead, he turned away and walked back in the opposite direction he had come.      

Anastasia turned to ask Dante what was happening when she felt the air escape from her lungs, and her eyes grew wide. His eyes glowed in the dark like two flames. Her lips trembled, and she went to step out of the shadows and into the moonlight.      

When the footsteps were heard again, Dante's gloved hand reached for her hand, pulling her back into the dark.      

"Y—your eyes—"     

Dante covered her mouth before she attracted attention, and he saw Maxwell walk back, passing the Paradise Tower as if to return to his room.      

Once the corridor was clear, Dante demanded, "What the hell are you doing here? Planning to have your head be the next to hang there?" And when he questioned her, Anastasia noticed his eyes glow brighter and getting scared, she stepped away from him.      

Was he a ghost? Anastasia asked herself, her face pale, and when she saw him step out of the shadows, his eyes were in their usual dark midnight hue.      

"I was… I came to get a drink of water," Anastasia whispered, still confirming what she just saw was real and that she was not half-asleep. When annoyance appeared in his eyes, she quickly continued, "I forgot my way back and ended up here."      

Dante had arrived here before she did, and he had noticed her staring at the stairs, similar to how his brother did earlier. She was in her faded, white, loose-fitting nightgown. Her usually smoothly-combed, tied-up hair was dishevelled now, with her braid resting on one of her shoulders.      

Anastasia noticed how he looked more annoyed than usual with her. But it wasn't because of her, or was it? Dante was irritated with himself for not only thinking there was water when it was only a mirage, but for looking for the water in a place where it didn't exist.      

Feeling him staring at her, Anastasia asked, turning in the direction that Maxwell had left, "What was that about? Was he just… walking by?" She could still feel the softness of his velvet gloves.      

"My brother has picked up the habit of walking at night like a ghost and I thought I would see what he was doing. People are up to no good at this hour of the night," Dante commented, his voice just low enough for her to hear. "Or are you planning your next escape once you deal with what happened to your sister?"      

Had the deceased king's ability transferred to him? Anastasia hoped not. But then, considering how he knew she had tried once already, this was only his guess.      

"Speak," Dante demanded as he noticed her wanting to speak, but holding back.     

Trying to be brave, Anastasia asked him, "Would it be bad? One less maid wouldn't make a difference."      

For someone whom everyone believed couldn't speak, she sure had the nerve to ask, and a chuckle escaped from his lips, leaving her confused. Even after pointing a dagger at her neck, she still thought about it. Either she was very brave or utterly foolish. His face then turned serious with a hint of a glare, and he said,      

"I would like to see you try," Dante dared her, and Anastasia felt her throat turn dry even though she had just drank water. "I will make sure I am the one to bring you back and deliver the punishment you so desperately seek."      


Allure of the water(Chapter 52)

Music Recommendation: The Real Work Begins- Kris Bowers     

It wasn't that Anastasia wouldn't attempt to escape, but the taunting tone of Dante's words made her feel cautious. It reminded her of helpless prey that would never escape the clutches of a predator once caught. She stared into his black eyes that held no trace of the glowing red she had noticed earlier.      

"Stop dawdling in the corridors and get back to your room. Now," Dante ordered, whilst his eyes subtly narrowed.      

Anastasia nodded, and she offered him a bow in response.      

Turning around, she began to walk on the cold marble. And as she moved, her eyes fell on the open windows that offered a view of the towns beyond the kingdom walls. Her heart felt heavy thinking about how close she and her sister had been to their freedom. When her eyes continued to gaze through the last window in the corridor, they fell on a shadow that followed not too far behind her.      

Anastasia's eyes fell on Dante, and she asked in a low voice, "Isn't your room on the other side of the palace, Prince Dante?"      

"I am thirsty and thought of getting a glass of water," Dante responded, but Anastasia could tell he was lying. The man was only making sure she didn't try to flee at the next possible opportunity!      

Remembering something, she waited until Dante came near where she had stopped. She asked,      

"May I ask something?" Seeing his head cocked to the side, she asked, "How did you know the location that served as inspiration for the drawings? Have you visited the place?"     

"When I was young, I came across a book with illustrations of the place along with others. The artist had travelled across the sea and tried to capture the details of the places he passed through," Dante answered nonchalantly, adding, "The book isn't in the library, just in case you are planning to look for it."     

"I see…" Now that the truth was out about her being the artist behind the drawings, she wondered if she could go back to drawing the way she did all these years without anyone questioning her. Maybe she could draw Marianne, she thought to herself.      

She decided to ask Princess Emily for permission to use the leftover coal from the fireplace so that she wouldn't be accused of stealing this time. Her eyes moved to the corner, noticing the cursed prince walking behind her like a phantom.      

When Anastasia and Dante arrived at the servants' quarters, she was going to walk to the kitchen with him, but his quiet glare stopped her in her tracks..      

"Didn't you hear me when I told you to go to your room?"      

"That—It is hot. And… water," Anastasia's words were broken. It was true, though, that the weather felt hot tonight, and she felt like she was evaporating. Did the prince always have to scare her with his presence and words? But then, it was better than greeting his dagger.      

Dante didn't respond and continued to walk towards the kitchen, and Anastasia followed him with a good distance between them.      

When they entered the kitchen, Anastasia quickly walked towards the big clay pot and picked up two glasses. One was made of clay, and the other was made of glass. She filled the glass and offered it to the prince.      

As Dante began to drink, he stared at the maid with a look of suspicion. He had done her a favour by advising her not to escape because anyone else in his place would have dragged her in front of the Vizier before punishing her for treason. But this one liked to push her luck, and as he saw her fill her clay glass, he questioned her,      

"Have you ever been punished before?"     

Anastasia turned her brown-eyed gaze at him and nodded, "I have, Prince. Many times when I first arrived… I was locked in the dungeon, confined to the darkroom for hours, and sometimes without food."      

Dante stared at her. He wondered if it was her foolishness that left him feeling slightly intrigued that he wanted to see what would happen. He took another sip from the glass before he questioned,      

"Do you know what follows the consequences you have already experienced?"      

"Death…" Anastasia replied, knowing that was how the world they lived in worked.      

Dante leaned his lower back against the slab on which the clay pot sat and asked, "How were you planning to escape? Humour me."     

Anastasia wondered if he was trying to extract information from her so that he could catch her the next time she tried to escape. She hadn't taken a sip yet from her clay glass, trying not to crush it due to the pressure she felt emanating from this prince.      

Noticing the conflict in her eyes, Dante remarked, "Why don't you tell me about it, and I will point out the flaws of why it wouldn't work. Consider it a lesson to reflect on for your next attempt."     

"Are you suggesting that I have a chance to escape?" Anastasia asked in slight surprise.      

Dante's lips twitched at the innocent question, which held hope as he stared at his glass of water. He looked up from the glass, and with a touch of mirth, he stated, "Didn't I tell you that you are free to try, but that doesn't mean I will quietly sit back and watch. So, what was your plan apart from using camels?"     

Anastasia pursed her lips and decided to say, "My plan was to use camels and follow the trade route. Marianne said there was a small village near the sea where we would have been able to sneak into where cargo is loaded onboard ships. Eventually, when the wealthy families travel back to their home countries, it would have been easy to pose as their maids before we would depart."     

"Do you think the people on the dock wouldn't be notified about a missing maid? Of course, they are on vacation," Dante's words were sarcastic and half amused. "The seaside is teeming with pirates. A lone woman in maid attire walking in the village, you will be captured and sold again, returning you to the very bottom from where you started. And even if they don't return you here, do you think they will spare a young, pretty woman?"      

Anastasia was about to argue, but his words calling her pretty distracted her, causing her to pause and blink at him.      

"What?" Dante raised one of his eyebrows at her.      

Anastasia shook her head and whispered, "Nothing."     

"Even if you somehow do manage to sail away on a ship, that wouldn't lead you home, but to a random destination," Dante pointed out to her. "And who knows, the freedom that you seek might move even farther away from your reach."     

Anastasia raised her glass to her lips before gulping it down. A few drops of water slipped from the corner of her lips. Dante, who was watching her closely, caught the water drops tracing a path down her neck, trailing towards her upper chest before disappearing beneath the fabric of her cotton night dress.      

Dante looked away from her and muttered through his teeth, "Not an ounce of wariness." She would be captured and sold in an instant.      

He wondered if this was the consequence of not sleeping with women for so long. He raked his fingers through his hair and wondered if he should take his grandmother's absence as an opportunity to relieve his pent-up tension. But then, at the same time, he hadn't forgotten the hassle women brought into his life, and the one in front of him did too.      

Dante's eyes moved back to the woman, who finished drinking the water and wiped her neck and chest with one of her sleeves. His eyes narrowed, and he questioned,      

"Did your sister teach you proper etiquette when it comes to eating and drinking?"      

Anastasia shook her head, "No." She wondered why he asked because eating and drinking was something everyone knew how to do—not knowing that Dante had questioned her to know if she was purposely spilling the water. Most of the courtesans and concubines used tricks like these to gain favours from men.      

"Straight to your room," Dante ordered her, placing his glass on the slab.      

Instead of exiting from the doors they had entered, Anastasia watched Dante make his way to the back door and disappear. She wondered where he was going this late at night, as if he couldn't sleep.      

Outside the palace, when Dante was walking, he caught Norrix Gilbert coming in the opposite direction. Mr. Gilbert noticed the prince turn to look behind him before he turned. The man quickly bowed and informed,      

"My Prince, the horseshoe has been fitted in your horse, and there are three more of them if you ever need to use them. I will be making a check once again before you leave the day after tomorrow morning."     

"That's good. Thanks, Norrix," Dante said, and Mr. Gilbert bowed once again. "There's something else I need."     

"Yes, Prince," Mr. Gilbert waited for the order.      

"Send a concubine to my room now," and though Dante said it nonchalantly, Mr. Gilbert stared at the prince.      

"A c—concubine?" Mr. Gilbert asked in shock because the prince, who had threatened every concubine and courtesan, was now willing to ask for one. Perhaps with the second prince who had turned into king, Prince Dante was trying to compete for it? After all, they did drive Lady Lucretia away with the other Blackthorn women. He quickly nodded, "I will have one sent right away! Anyone in particular you would like me to fetch?"      

Dante's mind flew to the woman he had caught in the corridor, and his glare was directed at Mr. Gilbert, who turned weary. He quickly corrected himself and said,      

"I will send you the best one," he said, and he quickly returned inside the palace.      

Mr. Gilbert quickly arrived at Madame Minerva's door, knocking on it. When the woman opened the door with sleepy eyes, she asked,      

"What is it?"      

"I need one of the concubines on the prince's demand," Mr. Gilbert relayed. "It is urgent."     

"Is Prince Aiden having a hard time sleeping?" Madame Minerva asked as she wore her cloak and walked towards where the concubines were sleeping.      

"It isn't for him, but for Prince Dante," Mr. Gilbert informed her, and the woman's eyes rose to her hairline.      

"You don't say," murmured Madame Minerva, who worked indirectly under Lady Maya and was loyal to her. It seemed like this was something Lady Maya would like to hear about. She said, "Kailani will make him happy."     

After getting Kailani, one of the best concubines, ready, the woman was sent to Prince Dante's room, accompanied by Mr. Gilbert. Knocking on the door, Mr. Gilbert announced,      

"Prince Dante, I am here with what you asked."     

"Come in," came the distant voice from the other side of the door, and Mr. Gilbert turned the doorknob before letting the concubine in. He then closed the door. He couldn't wait to let the Mother Queen know about this! With that thought, he left the floor.      

Inside the room, the raven-haired concubine with green eyes stood with her hands folded in front of her. She couldn't believe that the first prince had summoned her, and she couldn't wait to capture and entice him.      

"Prince Dante, shall I dance for you?" The eager concubine asked him. "I can sing and dance together if you wish to."     

Dante, who sat on the edge of his bed with his legs crossed, though he stared at the concubine, wasn't looking at her as he was in deep thought.      

"Get the glass of water from the table," Dante ordered the concubine, who was happy to do so. But when she brought it to him, he said, "Drink it. Slowly."     

The concubine was taken aback by the order and only misinterpreted it as him taking care of her before she would serve him. She decided to drink it the way she had learned. She brought the glass close to her mouth before running her tongue across her lips.      

"Did you not have your dinner?" Dante questioned with a bored expression, and the concubine's mouth turned into a fish's. "I told you to drink water, not to treat it as food."     

The concubine quickly offered a bow and did what the prince ordered. But when she took two sips and stopped, she heard him say,      

"Keep drinking."     

Kailani did what she was told and finished drinking the entire glass of water.      

Dante, who watched the concubine drink the water, didn't find the allure that had sparked a while ago in the kitchen. Maybe it was the way it was drunk. He ordered her again, "Fill the glass with water again."     

The concubine did as she was told and returned to stand before the prince again.      

"Drink in a way that the water slides down from your lips."      

The concubine was speechless. The king and the princes had often fed her. This was the first time she was made to drink water. She bowed and tried to drink the water as ordered, but either the water didn't spill or spilt too much.      

"Again," Dante ordered, and the concubine felt the sadistic nature of the prince.      

When she finished half of the third glass, not only was her stomach full, but the attempt to look enticing mixed with the order led to her spilling the rest of the water on her dress.      

Dante's lips twisted in annoyance, and he stood up from the bed before leaving his room. The concubine turned to the closed door, wondering if the prince would return. But he never returned for the remainder of the night.   _________ 


Prick of the Blackthorn(Chapter 53)

When dawn broke, the first rays of light started to conquer the kingdom of Versailles, first touching the ground and then gradually ascending to illuminate the upper floors of the palace. The concubine named Kailani woke up with an abrupt jolt, still in the first prince's room.      
It would be wrong to assume that Kailani had stayed in Prince Dante's room since his exit, especially when the prince had her drink three glasses of water, and she had to release her bladder. But the concubine had returned to the prince's room in hopes that he would return so they could continue the night, considering the reason she was summoned there in the first place.      

Getting up from near the prince's bed, where she had fallen asleep while waiting for him, she stood up and stepped out of the room.      

Once Kailani arrived at the concubines' quarters, the other already awake concubines noticed her walking through the room's entrance. They quickly hurried to where she was and gathered around to question her,      

"Is it true that you were summoned by Prince Dante?"      

"How was your night with him? He kept you until morning! Did you serve him until morning and sleep in the same bed as him?"      

"Is he as scary as they say he is? Did you see the curse that people have been talking about?"      

As questions kept being thrown at her, Kailani stood quietly, listening. She was the top concubine right now, and telling them that all she had done was drink three glasses of water would not only sound stupid, but would even risk her reputation.      

Kailani smiled at them and replied, "Prince Dante and I had a wonderful night, something none of you could imagine. He took good care of me."     

One of the concubines complained, "You are so lucky that you got to serve him. No one has ever been able to do it. It must be nice to be the best concubine here."     

Another one then said, "Does this mean that you could become his exclusive concubine if you were to give birth to his child?"      

"That is true. Once I give birth to his child, I will be nothing less than his legal wife," Kailani's smug smile broadened as she absorbed the attention of the other envious concubines, who weren't in as much demand as her.      

Madame Minerva appeared at the entrance and overheard the chatter of the concubines. Since Lady Maya was elevated to be a queen, she had been assigned to oversee the concubines along with the courtesans, though primarily in the absence of the new soon-to-be queen. The woman spoke to Kailani,      

"Looks like a miracle has taken place in the palace, and Kailani has finally managed to survive an entire night with Prince Dante. Everyone should learn something from her. Good work in pleasing the prince."     

Kailani offered a deep bow, and a wide smile stretched on her lips as she made her way through the place and took her seat as if she had already turned into an exclusive concubine. After all, it wasn't like the prince would know what went on in the concubines' quarters for him to punish her.      

But the concubine underestimated the situation, as the news about Prince Dante having summoned a concubine to his room in the middle of the night had spread like wildfire and everyone knew about it before breakfast.      

Princess Emily was getting ready with Anastasia's help when Princess Niyasa stepped inside the room.      

"Lily, did you hear?" Princess Niyasa asked, coming over to gossip; her blue eyes bright with curiosity.      

"About what?" Princess Emily asked, turning away from the mirror to look at her sister, who had forgotten that she had tattle-taled on her maid yesterday.      

Princess Niyasa huffed, staring at the mute maid, who had probably failed to pass the news on. She said, "About Brother Dante. He had a concubine in his room last night! Looks like he is trying to win the favour of the ministers by giving them a child as an heir."     

Princess Emily's eyes widened, "That's not possible. He's always chased them away."     

Anastasia was wrapping a silk belt around Princess Emily's waist, and upon hearing this, her eyes quietly moved up to look at Princess Niyasa, who was staring outside the window, before she turned back to her older sister.      

"I heard it directly from Madame Minerva, who had gone to Mother's room when I was there too," Princess Niyasa stated in a matter-of-fact tone. "He himself asked for one. Pitiful, isn't it?"      

"The concubines are for the king and the princes' use. There's nothing pitiful about it, Niyasa. What's pitiful is your mother driving away my mother and the rest to the old palace as if they committed a crime," Princess Emily replied, still feeling bitter about how things had changed.      

"Mother said it is only until we find the murderer responsible for Father's death. I don't understand why you are blaming her when she is only trying to protect everyone." Princess Niyasa frowned at her older sister. "And don't make me remind you of how everyone quickly jumped on Brother Maxwell, accusing him of being the murderer when he's innocent. Our father was his father too, and he loved him. I wouldn't blame them since they are only watching their backs. And mine. I am sure your mother would have done the same if the situation was reversed."     

"My mother wouldn't drive everyone out of the palace. You know that the old palace isn't as safe as this one here," Princess Emily stated with fear lingering in her mind. Would the presence of a mere few guards be enough to ensure her family's safety?      

"You don't know that, Lily," Princess Niyasa responded and sighed before saying, "I came here to talk to my sister, but it seems there is a misunderstanding." Saying those words, the younger princess walked towards the door and exited the room as she had entered.      

"Idiot," Anastasia heard Princess Emily mutter under her breath. She then quickly said, "Not her, but me."     

Noticing that the princess's mind was disturbed, Anastasia stroked the princess's back to offer her comfort.      

"I hope the murderer will be caught soon. The longer it takes to find them, the more the trust in our family breaks down and makes room for suspicion," Princess Emily said with a frown before she switched the subject. "I cannot believe that Brother Dante willingly spent the night with a concubine. I guess it is all thanks to you, Anna," she said, looking at Anastasia's reflection.      

Me? Anastasia asked herself. What did she do?     

"If you and he didn't sleep with each other, maybe things would have still been stagnant in the palace, but this is good progress," Princess Emily offered her a bright smile, and the maid shook her head.      

Anastasia had never slept with Prince Dante, which was a big misunderstanding that hadn't been rectified. Princess Emily offered her a proud pat on the back and said,      

"You don't have to be humble about it. If it was another woman in your place, like a concubine or courtesan, they would have bragged about it and would have been moved to the quarters by now."     

Anastasia shook her head and moved her hands to make the princess understand that she had neither engaged in any intimate relations with the first prince nor did she desire any promotions within this palace. She would rather hold cleaning rags than wear expensive clothes and serve random men.      

"I know, I know," Princess Emily nodded. "Even though you have slept with Brother Dante; I won't give you away to be placed among the courtesans. I think you already know this, but a maid cannot directly become a concubine and always starts as a courtesan before progressing to exclusive status, and only then can she become a concubine. Though if I think more about it, I believe it would be quite lovely to have you serve as the prince's concubine, no? We would be able to spend better time with each other."     

And though the princess meant well, her thoughts didn't sit well with Anastasia, who stared at the young woman.      

While following Princess Emily to the dining room, Anastasia's eyes fell on Prince Dante, who appeared to be in the same clothes that she had seen him in last night. His hair was tousled as if someone had run their hands through it several times, and he looked tired.      

"Good morning, Brother Dante. Lovely day, isn't it?" Princess Emily smiled with a knowing look, which the prince missed as his eyes fell behind his sister to look at the maid, and his jaw ticked.      

"Mm, morning." Dante's words were short.      

"Will you be joining us for breakfast?" Princess Emily asked him.      

"No, I am busy. I will be leaving in a few hours and will be dropping by the old palace before heading to where the troops are waiting," Dante replied, and this had the princess offer him an understanding nod. As if remembering something, she said, "I wrote a letter to my mother and wasn't sure if I should send it through the guard."     

"Give it to me before I leave. I will hand it to her myself," Dante walked past them, trying to ignore his sister's maid, whom he had been trying not to think about since last night.      

Princess Emily turned to see her brother's back as he walked away and whispered to Anastasia,      

"It looks like they did it until morning." She said, "The letter is in the first drawer of the desk in my room, inside a book, Anna. Why don't you go and hand it to Brother Dante while I have my breakfast? I wouldn't want him to leave it behind because I don't trust that the letter won't be read or mishandled by someone else."     

Anastasia did as she was told after seeing Princess Emily step inside the dining room; she made her way towards the princess's room before taking the hidden letter from between the pages of the book in the drawer, as instructed. Carrying the letter to Prince Dante's room, she knocked on the door and waited a good minute for a response.      

When no one responded, she decided to slip the letter through the gap under the door. But when she sat down on her heels, she started to doubt whether it was a good idea to leave the princess's letter like that. At that exact moment, the door opened, and she looked up to find Dante's narrowed eyes watching her.      

"What the fuck are you doing?"      

Dante noticed her doe-like eyes stare at him, and the position she had assumed sparked suggestive ideas in his mind. After leaving the palace in the middle of the night, he had tried to get rid of his intrusive thoughts before he ended up training at the base camp, which was the best way he knew how to deal with them.      

It felt like Dante had become a giant, ready to trample her, from where she sat. She noticed his hands weren't wearing gloves, but were wrapped in white cloth-like bandages. Anastasia stood up in a hurry, and in her haste, her head went to collide with his chin when Dante placed his finger on her forehead and pushed her head back.      

Anastasia quickly balanced herself on her feet and stepped backwards to maintain distance between them.      

"My apologies, Prince Dante. I came here to hand over the letter from Princess Emily to her mother," Anastasia brought her hand forward, and within a second, the envelope was snatched from her hand.      

"Make sure to keep Emily company and that she's safe. We don't know if the murderer is waiting to strike again," Dante said, instructing the maid, but then the faint thought of how she, too, was in danger passed through his mind, considering her lack of awareness.      

Anastasia bowed and replied, "I won't let anything happen to her, Prince Dante." Remembering how his eyes had glowed last night, she looked to see if they still did now. But instead, she found his eyes narrowed at her.      

She saw Dante jerk his head in the direction for her to leave, and on cue, she quickly turned and heard the door shut behind her.      

By noon, Dante and a few men had left the royal palace, their final destination being Brovia, where they would launch an attack.      

After four days had passed, in the royal palace, the newly-crowned King Maxwell took a stroll with Lady Evin inside the palace corridors and next to the gardens built inside, which kept the place cooler than the other areas. Their arms were wrapped around each other, while not too far behind them, the other prince and princesses followed.      

Lady Evin said to Maxwell, with a smile adorning her lips, "I cannot wait for our wedding, King Maxwell. It has been something I have been looking forward to ever since we found each other."      

"Neither can I, darling," Maxwell replied, and he leaned towards her before planting a kiss on her temple. He said to her, "I cannot tell you what a great support you have been, along with my family, for helping me through this difficult time."     

Anastasia, who walked behind Princess Emily, stared at the back of Maxwell's head. She wondered if these were words he had shared with her sister before. He had forgotten about his love for her, which was replaced and erased by the soulmate connection.      

"I don't know if I should throw up or feel jealous about the connection my brother has found," Princess Niyasa spoke in a lowered voice, so the two walking ahead couldn't hear her. "At least it is better than seeing him flirt with those useless courtesans."     

Anastasia noticed that Prince Aiden, who often had something to say, was quiet. They hadn't spoken to each other since the night they had tried to escape. It was as if his father's death and the responsibilities he had shied away from had left an open wound in him.      

Princess Emily, being optimistic, said, "I hope all of us can find our soulmates. To have that person you know was born for you, which was meant to be."     

"I don't think you should place hope in such things, Lily," Princess Niyasa remarked, "Not to be rude, but you are twenty and haven't found your soulmate yet. Isn't that why Lady Sophia has been looking for prospects for you?"     

"You should know when to stop, Niyasa. Perhaps you don't have a soulmate yourself," Prince Aiden said to her, which made the young princess laugh.      

"I don't rely on finding a soulmate, Aiden, and like to be realistic," Princess Niyasa offered them a false smile before it fell.      

"Is it because you already know that you don't have a soulmate?" Princess Emily asked as they continued to walk through the corridors. She said, "I hope you find a suitable husband, Niyasa." That way, this brat wouldn't be causing more trouble for them.      

When they reached the abandoned side of the palace, Lady Evin asked, "What's over there on this side of the palace?" She noticed two guards standing at the entrance.      

"None of us are supposed to step in there. And the place gives me the creeps," Princess Niyasa informed the lady.     

"I would like to take a look at the place. Please," Lady Evin asked King Maxwell, who gave her a nod.      

King Maxwell said to her, "Aiden and I have some work to attend to, but I expect my sisters to take good care of you. I hope you have a good time and bond well with them."     

The rest of them walked through the entrance, reaching the corridor where the creepers curled around the pillars and hung from the upper floor. Lady Evin laughed before remarking, "This place appears as if it is haunted."     

Anastasia's eyes fell on the dead Blackthorn rose and the thorns that heavily surrounded it. She hadn't forgotten her dream about it, and it still gave her chills. She looked around the place, where some sides of the corridors were dark and hidden in shadows. Not much light passed through this place.      

"Look at that, a rose that still stands. Does no one come here to clean?" Lady Evin questioned the princesses, before placing a foot into the inner garden.      

"Lady Evin, it is forbidden to go nea—" Princess Emily tried to warn her.      

"Princess Emily, I am the king's future wife. I don't need you to tell me what I can or cannot do. Is that understood?" Lady Evin said. She reached the Blackthorn plant.      

"You worry for no reason, Lily. It is a plant which has been dead for years now," Princess Niyasa said to her older sister and reminded her, "Did you forget how a servant was pricked by a thorn and nothing happened?"     

Anastasia noticed the look of worry on Princess Emily's face. When her eyes returned to the centre of the garden, she saw Lady Evin's hand reach out towards the lone rose, which enticed one to pluck it.      

And though Lady Evin was careful, somehow the thorn of the plant pricked one of her fingers, and she winced, "Ow! Stupid thorn!" She turned and was about to speak when her face turned pale, and she collapsed next to the plant.     

Everyone's eyes turned wide, and they shouted, "Lady Evin!"      

"Guards!" Princess Emily called while Princess Niyasa stood frozen. "Alert King Maxwell and Queen Maya about Lady Evin! Quick!"      

The princesses stepped into the inner garden, and Anastasia followed closely behind. They noticed Lady Evin's body spasming. When Princess Emily was about to touch the lady, Princess Niyasa stopped her and said,      

"Let the maid do it!" Panic was written all over the younger princess's face, and she ordered Anastasia, "Hurry, check if she is still alive!"      

Anastasia checked the lady's pulse and on feeling it, she nodded. The woman was still alive, but barely. She wondered why this had happened, because many weeks ago, she had been pricked too, but hadn't collapsed like the lady.      


Negotiation between the Queens(Chapter 54)

Music Recommendation: Heart Attack- Haximum     

The entire palace was left in panic and shock as Lady Evin was carried out of the abandoned wing and carefully moved into one of the guest rooms.      

Lady Evin's body had gone cold; though she was alive, she remained unconscious. Small black dots had begun to surface on her pale skin. The physician was immediately summoned and was now checking the lady's condition.      

"How the hell did this even happen?!" Maxwell demanded of his sisters, with whom he had left Lady Evin only a few minutes ago. "Is someone going to answer me?" He snapped in rage, and the princesses cowered from where they stood.      

Princess Emily closed her eyes as her elder brother's voice rang loudly, reverberating off the walls. She answered,      

"King Maxwell, I tried to inform Lady Evin not to touch the rose, but neither she nor Niyasa heeded my warning."     

"It wasn't me!" Princess Niyasa denied the claim. "I never told Lady Evin to touch it. I was standing far away from the dead garden, and th—"     

Queen Maya slapped her daughter across her face for such impudent and reckless behaviour. Princess Niyasa's face turned twice as bright as usual while she stood shell-shocked. The young lady could feel her cheek turn hot.      

Queen Maya didn't stop glaring at her daughter and said, "Hasn't it already been ordered that no one, meaning not a single soul, is supposed to go near the Blackthorn rose, and there is a reason for that?!"      

"How could I have known something like this would happen?" Princess Niyasa said in a low voice, directing the blame away from herself and said, "One of the servants was also pricked by it, and it is a dead plant. It was probably because Lady Evin ate something or walked somewhere contaminated, which is why she fell sick in the first place! Do you think I would purposely take her there when it was her own idea?"      

"Niyasa," Maxwell called his sister's name, and she turned to look at him with a demure look now. He said, "Let us hope that nothing bad happens to her, or you will be punished for it as I left her in your care. Both you and Emily."     

Princess Emily's mouth fell open, as she had truly done nothing to instigate or encourage the lady to touch the rose. But as this was the king speaking, and the matter concerned his future wife, there was no room to argue, but only listen and obey.      

Princess Niyasa gritted her teeth and pursed her lips in frustration. She said to her mother, "The servant who was pricked—"     

"If you don't keep quiet, God help me, Niyasa," Queen Maya shut her daughter's mouth.      

Lady Evin's parents were beside themselves with worry and fury. Her father questioned, "How could this happen to her? She looks so sick, and her chest barely rises when she breathes."     

Maxwell turned to the Vizier and ordered, "Bring the servant who was previously pricked by the Blackthorn rose here immediately."     

"Yes, Your Highness," the Vizier obliged the king's order and quickly stepped out of the room. Once he fetched the male servant, he brought him to where everyone was gathered, and he informed, "I have brought the servant you ordered, my King."     

The servant was an elderly man whose body had shrivelled with the passage of time, leaving him with a hunched back. He offered a bow to the royal family members, not understanding why he was summoned here when he was sure that he hadn't done anything wrong.      

"Were you the one who was pricked by the Blackthorn rose?" Maxwell demanded in haste, desperate for answers.      

The old man raised his head to look at the furious king before nodding in confirmation.      

"Tell me what happened that day. I don't want you to leave out a single detail. Speak!" Maxwell glared because Evin's life hung by a thin thread.      

The old man's body shook, and he struggled to find his voice. His lips moved, and for the first two seconds, no words came out. Finally, he managed to say, "I—I, I was cleaning that day. I di—didn't know, and I went to touch the black rose because I had never seen anything like t—that before. But before I knew it, I felt it p—prick my finger. My King, I didn't mean to harm the plant!"      

"Did your finger bleed?" Maxwell questioned with his eyebrows deeply furrowed and his face contorted in a scowl. "Did it?"      

"It did. It was a single drop of blood," the old man quickly answered the king.      

"See, I told you," Princess Niyasa whispered to her older sister as if she was right. "It wasn't our fault."     

Queen Maya said to her son, "I was present in the palace when this happened. He was indeed fine when he was pricked. I don't know why after all this time, its thorns have suddenly turned poisonous."      

"Something must have happened to cause it to change, Your Highness," the Vizier stated with a thoughtful expression. "There must be some sort of difference between when the last incident occurred and now. Does it have to do anything with gender? Maybe it affects women?"     

"Then let us try to look for what went wrong. Bring a male servant to the abandoned side of the palace," King Maxwell ordered, ready to test the Vizier's theory.      

While the men left the room to carry out the order, Anastasia, who remained behind with the others, clenched her hands against the sides of her body. She couldn't believe that a single prick could result in a person's life hanging by a thread, and she had pricked her finger too.      

Anastasia's eyes moved to look at Lady Evin, whose lips had turned darker, and there was no sign of her waking up anytime soon. She heard Lady Evin's mother comment,      

"How could this happen to her? She was perfectly fine, and now, because of a single prick, she's unconscious. Queen Maya, why not have the poisonous plant cleared from the palace altogether?"      

Princess Emily quietly stared at Lady Evin's mother, contemplating her question. She had warned the lady's daughter, but she had impulsively rushed ahead.      

"It is a family plant, deeply rooted within our history, and cannot be removed or relocated," Queen Maya responded to the woman before assuring her, "We will make sure that she's healthy and back on her feet in no time."     

"It looks like their wedding will have to wait until she recovers," Lady Evin's mother softly cried behind her hand while sitting beside her unconscious daughter. The physician, who was done checking the young woman, turned to Queen Maya and informed her,      

"My Queen."      

"Yes, Hakkim. Do you know if it is some kind of sickness?" Queen Maya questioned the physician, hoping it had nothing to do with the Blackthorn rose.      

"Pardon me… but I believe it is indeed the result of the poison from the plant," the physician told her, and the weight in her stomach plummeted to the ground.      

After several minutes, Anastasia heard footsteps approaching the room, and soon King Maxwell and the Vizier returned with the others trailing behind them. The Vizier held a deep frown while King Maxwell looked confused.      

"What happened to the male servant?" Queen Maya asked her son.      

"He died," King Maxwell replied with a grim look. "There is something different about the plant now. The dead stems near the ground are no longer dead, but they have become green." He turned to the physician and asked, "Can you find a solution to help her regain her consciousness?"      

"Forgive me, My King, but the effects of a prick from the Blackthorn rose lie beyond my expertise. It requires a specific antidote, and I think most of the knowledge on creating one has been lost," the physician answered with a bow.      

"What does this mean? Am I supposed to stand here and watch my daughter die?!" Lady Evin's father demanded.      

Queen Maya pursed her lips before she gritted her teeth, "I know one person who might have the antidote."     

The Vizier ordered the nearby servants, "Prepare transportation immediately."     

Accompanied by her two maids, Queen Maya headed to where the information on the antidote could be acquired. When she arrived at the destination, the old palace, Queen Maya stepped down and muttered under her breath,      

"I thought I wouldn't have to visit this place, but here I am."     

As they entered the old palace, with its faded walls and scarce furniture, they were swiftly noticed by Aziel, who quickly ran to inform the Mother Queen of their presence, who was petting a cat on her lap whilst she drank a cup of cold tea with lemon squeezed into it.     

"Mother Queen! Mother Queen!" Aziel shouted as he stepped inside the room.      

"Why are you shouting, Aziel?" The Mother Queen questioned him calmly, as she stirred the spoon.      

"Lady Maya, I mean Queen Maya is here!" Aziel replied in a hushed voice, placing his hand on his back.      

"Hm?" The Mother Queen's eyebrows rose in surprise.      

Not a moment later, Queen Maya stepped into the room with her two maids remaining outside, accompanied by the guards who had escorted her.      

"Mother Queen," Queen Maya offered a slight bow out of respect for the woman's age. She waited for the woman to greet her the same way in return, but instead, the older woman remarked,      

"Good evening, Queen… Maya. I would have stood up and offered you a warm welcome but as you see I have a cat on my lap, who only just fell asleep. It would be rude to disturb it, much like the way you evicted us out of the palace after my son's death," the Mother Queen smiled at the former concubine-turned-queen.      

A tight smile was plastered on Queen Maya's face as she had forgotten how much this older woman liked to taunt at every possible opportunity. She said, "I am glad that my Maxwell sent you to the old palace rather than completely cast you out of the family. Are you enjoying your time here?" Her eyes fell on the purring cat. "I made sure that the supply of the rations wouldn't fall short."     

"I wouldn't be able to explain it in words; one would need to live here to know the joys or sorrows of this place," the Mother Queen said, raising her teacup and taking a sip from it. She called, "Aziel, why don't you tell the maid to bring the new Queen a cup of tea."     

"Yes, milady," Aziel bowed and closed the door behind him when he left, knowing the two women wanted some time alone to speak in private.      

Taking a comfortable seat next to the Mother Queen, Queen Maya said, "I am here on some important business and would like your help."     

"I don't think there's anything I can do for you when you have taken everything from me. But do ask," the Mother Queen wondered what was happening in the palace whilst she was confined here.      

"A situation has arisen in the palace," Queen Maya began, choosing her words carefully as she spoke, "Someone in the palace was pricked by the Blackthorn rose and the person has fallen sick. I am h—"     

"It must be one of the guests. Why wander where you are not supposed to? I doubt my grandchildren are stupid enough to touch it when they were warned about it. Unless… are they?" The Mother Queen asked in doubt, while her eyes narrowed as she pondered who the idiot could be.      

"It is one of the guests, an important one at that," Queen Maya said and then continued, "I need the antidote that I believe you have preserved all these years?"      

The Mother Queen stared at the woman, who still showcased the attributes of a concubine. She shook her head and replied, "I don't have it." She placed the teacup on the side table and stared back at the younger woman.      

"I know you have it. A person's life is in danger and if you don't give it to me, she might die."     

"First of all, it must be some other sickness, because the thorns cannot cause a person to fall ill as the plant has been dead for a long time. Secondly, who is this rude person who ventured into the forbidden garden and was pricked by a thorn?" The Mother Queen raised her eyebrows.      

Queen Maya was well-aware that this older woman had the antidote to the poison in her possession but was only playing ignorant about it. Before Evin's health worsened, she had to bring the antidote to her. She explained,      

"The stem on the ground has turned green."     

"That's impossible," the Mother Queen dismissed it. The last time she had seen it, it was dry and ready to snap.      

"The plant was checked and even though most of the plant is dead, along with the dead bloom, the stems near the ground have turned a little green. Which is the reason why Evin has fallen sick. Now if you could give me the antidote, it would save my son's fiancée," Queen Maya pleaded with urgency. She didn't want to use force, but if it came to it, she would have no other option when it came to retrieving the antidote.      

Queen Ginger's faint eyebrows slightly furrowed as she fell into thought. That was impossible, because the Blackthorn rose had been dead for years. Had something happened since she left the palace?      

"Mother Queen Ginger," Queen Maya called the woman's name softly, and the old woman hummed.      

"Yes, I am here. I was just thinking about what you said," the Mother Queen replied and then said, "The antidote is the last one, and so it is invaluable. What do I receive in return, Queen Maya?"      

"You get to continue to keep your title as the Mother Queen of Versailles. You get to stay in this quiet palace," Queen Maya smiled at the old woman.      

"But I have all that already, don't I?"      

"Which is why I said 'continue'. Where is the antidote? Maxwell is already enraged over what happened to his soulmate and you don't want to face his wrath, do you? He will turn every place upside down to find Evin an antidote," Queen Maya said in a low voice, "What is it that you want?" It was obvious there was something this woman wanted, and that she wouldn't hand it over without something in return.     

The Mother Queen stared at the woman, who sat on the other chair, and a small smile formed on her lips, and she said,      

"In regards to the third decision that the king made on the day of his coronation, have it reversed so that all of us can go back to living in the royal palace. One life in exchange for every royal family member's return, hm?"      

"I hope that it was just tea that you were drinking, Mother Queen, because that isn't a reasonable exchange," Queen Maya replied sarcastically, incredulous that this old woman thought she would agree. "We are talking about one life, so maybe only one person can return."     

"How about you take your time to reconsider the negotiation, and in that time, I will try to remember where or if I still have the antidote with me," the Mother Queen replied, stroking the sleeping cat's head. "To add to it, I will give you this cat as a gift."     

Queen Maya stared at the older woman and said,      

"I knew you would be difficult about this, which is why here is the thing, Mother Queen. You can either hand over the antidote and return to the palace because of your great service to your king, which is your grandson, or you can deny having it in your possession and the guards will look everywhere before calling treason on Emily. After all, she was there when Evin got pricked by the thorn. So, what is it going to be?"      

"Don't you dare touch my grandchildren," the Mother Queen's eyes turned serious and gone was the relaxed expression on her face. "You can play all the little games you want, but don't you ever think of hurting them."     

"The antidote," Queen Maya raised her hand forward, adding, "I don't want to play any games with you, Mother Queen. I only want good things for my children, and Maxwell is your grandchild, isn't he? You should understand his situation better than anyone, after all, you and your husband were each other's soulmates."     

Queen Maya added, "You might not have killed the previous king, but I cannot guarantee that the killer isn't amongst us."     

"I keep questioning myself if it was a ploy of yours to have us in the old palace," the Mother Queen's eyes narrowed, implying the murderer to be the woman sitting next to her.      

"Your imagination runs wild, Mother Queen," Queen Maya's lips twitched, and at the same time, Aziel returned with a maid, who brought tea and biscuits.     

"Refreshments have arrived," Aziel informed the women sitting in the room. But Queen Maya wasn't interested in drinking tea, as she was done speaking about what she had come here for. Standing up from her seat, she said to the Mother Queen, "Thank you for your precious time, Mother Queen. I will send the men to fetch you or the antidote." She offered a bow before stepping out of the room and leaving the old palace.      

Aziel watched the new Queen leave, while the Mother Queen stood beside him, watching the palanquin disappear in the distance. He asked,      

"Is everything alright, my Queen?"      

The older woman took a deep breath before exhaling. She remarked, "I wish. Something is going on back in the palace, Aziel, and I am not sure if it is good or bad."     

Confused, Aziel asked, "Why do you say that?"      

"It seems Maxwell's soulmate got pricked by the Blackthorn rose and has fallen ill. But that isn't all. Somehow, the Blackthorn rose is awakening from its slumber," the Mother Queen said of what she heard from the former concubine.      

Aziel's eyebrows rose, and he asked, "Does that mean the greenery will come back to Versailles?"      

"Mm," the old woman hummed in agreement, but a look of worry marred her wrinkled face.     

There was a reason why most of the Blackthorn roses in Versailles had died or withered, leaving only one dormant in the palace. As it had trapped something many years ago, and its appearance reflected what it could do.      


Where have I seen you?(Chapter 55)

The following day, a palanquin was dispatched from the royal palace to the old palace. The Mother Queen stood at the front of the palace with her minister, who now asked her,      
"Are you sure you don't want me to come with you, Mother Queen?" Aziel looked worried.      

"I can take care of myself, Aziel. What I need from you is to look after Lucretia, considering her weak health," the Mother Queen instructed him. She said, "Maya is making sure to keep people away from the palace by imposing difficult conditions. Let me go and see what has been going on in my absence and also take a look at the wilted rose. With Noor now here too, she will stay by Lucretia's side, so you won't have to worry too much."     

Aziel informed her, "Lady Lucretia's health has continuously deteriorated, and the medicines have been of no use."     

The Mother Queen said, "Lucretia's health had taken a hit many years ago, ever since William stopped seeing her with the same affection he once had for her. It is only now that it is physically evident." She paused for a moment and then continued, "Our traditions and culture allow a king to take more than one woman, but with the idea that the woman and her children would be well taken care of. Sometimes it isn't just about putting a roof over their heads or food on their plates. It is about love, and when there's no love, there is pain," she sighed.      

The old woman climbed inside the palanquin, and before the men carrying it began to move, the minister assured her,      

"I will keep you informed."     

"I expect nothing less. I will visit in the near future," the Mother Queen said, and soon the palanquin set off.      

Back in the royal palace, Anastasia cleaned one of the guest rooms with Theresa. With the news about Lady Evin falling sick and the wedding being postponed, most of the guests had decided to leave the palace one by one out of fear that the palace had been touched by ill fortune. First, it was the deceased King William, and now Lady Evin was on the brink of her death.      

Noticing Anastasia's worried expression, Theresa asked, "Has there been any progress with Lady Evin's condition?"      

Anastasia shook her head, "None. I would say she was dead if it weren't for her pulse."     

"I don't think I have heard anything like it before," Theresa whispered, then said, "The palace is so quiet that even the maids are scared to say a word about it. King Maxwell must be in a rage that he might lose his soulmate."     

"He is, and he blames his sisters for it. But it isn't Princess Emily's fault," Anastasia removed the pillow covers and put them in the basket. She hoped the king wouldn't punish the older princess. She said, "There is something that I haven't told anyone, Auntie. There was this one time when I got pricked by it, but nothing happened."     

Theresa's eyes widened, and she quickly approached Anastasia's side to look closer at the young woman. She asked, "When did that happen? Are you alright?"      

"I am fine," Anastasia assured the older woman before saying, "They were saying the Blackthorn rose was dead, but it could be alive now. Do you know what that means?"      

"Unfortunately, we servants don't have any knowledge about it, and to tell you the truth, though I have been working here for more than three decades, never once had I seen what or how it looks like," Theresa replied to her with a frown. "Don't go near something so dangerous, Anna."     

Once they were done cleaning the current room, they moved to the next guest room before removing the bedsheets and replacing them with a new set. Theresa remarked,      

"It feels like Versailles is going through a hard time, not to mention the current reign. You know… I don't mean to encourage you, but it is something that crossed my mind. This is a good time if you want to escape these walls and this kingdom."     

Usually, Theresa was against the idea of Anastasia and her sister putting themselves in danger by risking being caught, but after what happened to Marianne, the older woman's heart ached. She didn't want Anastasia to share the same fate when she had lied to the royal family.      

Theresa whispered, "The guests are still boarding the ships and you can follow them. I also carry this with me, just in case you ever need it," she pulled the gold coin from her pocket to show Anastasia.      

"I cannot believe that you are telling me to flee," Anastasia softly chuckled before the smile fell from her face. She said, "If it was another time, I would have done it without a second thought. But I need to know who killed Marianne."     

[Music Recommendation: Loneliness- Haximum]     

"Anna," Theresa took Anastasia's hand and said, "I cannot wait for the culprit to be caught and punished for stealing an innocent woman's life. But this moment that we live in now, it is a dark time. Sometimes, some things will entangle you in a way that make escaping impossible. What if you get hurt while looking for the person?"     

"I haven't looked for the murderer yet, because I don't know where to begin," Anastasia looked down at their joined hands and continued, "But I am hoping that I will find out, if not… I will take Mary with me and leave."     

She had stored her sister's ashes in a clay pot, which would be the first thing she would take with her when the time came for her to leave. Sometimes, when she came across the courtesans, she felt a pang of pain in her chest because her eyes searched for her sister, who wasn't there. Since her sister's death, she wondered what she would tell her parents about Marianne's whereabouts when she would reunite with them.      

When Anastasia's eyes filled with tears, she picked up the dirty laundry and said,      

"I will put these down for the maids to collect later for cleaning."      

After placing all the sheets in the room where all the laundry was collected, before it would be sent to the river to clean, Anastasia was heading back to where Theresa was when she met Prince Aiden on her way. She offered him a small bow, and was about to walk past him when she heard him say,      

"Anna, could I have a moment with you?"      

Anastasia nodded before following him. Once they reached a deserted corridor, Prince Aiden said, "I am sorry about your sister. I realised it rather late that my brother's concubine was your sister."     

"I am sorry about your father," Anastasia offered her condolences, and an awkward silence filled the air around them. She asked him, "How are you holding up?"      

Prince Aiden nodded his head, "Trying to keep myself afloat. How about you?"      

"Same," Anastasia replied. Pursing her lips, she said, "I am sorry for escaping that day."     

"It wasn't your fault. We didn't know something so horrifying was going to take place, and it was my decision," Prince Aiden murmured before saying, "I am surprised you don't think I am the murderer. Most of them do, at least Queen Maya does." It was evident that the blame would have fallen on him, considering no one had seen him in the palace only because he was planning to escape, like her.      

Anastasia replied, "I don't think it makes sense that you would try to kill someone when you were leaving… Can I ask something, if I may?"      

"Go ahead. You don't need to ask permission from me," Prince Aiden said.      

"Why did you want to escape?" Anastasia didn't know if Prince Aiden knew what life outside the palace walls was like because it was not akin to some random visit to the Bazaar.      

Prince Aiden smiled at her question, though it didn't reach his eyes. He said, "Because I feel suffocated here. You must wonder what a prince who has everything and barely anything to worry about has to feel suffocated by?"      

"I think everyone has their own troubles," Anastasia replied to him.      

"When you are the king's legitimate wife's son, expectations are placed on you. It doesn't make it easy that your older brothers are better than you, which I have no complaints about, and I am truly happy for what they have achieved, but I realised I was more happy when I am outside, than when I am here. I feel the walls closing in on me," Prince Aiden looked away from her as he stepped closer to the window next to them and looked outside.      

He said, "I have been told by my mother and others before to learn and follow my siblings' example, but my way of thinking is different from theirs. I only wanted to breathe freely, which is why I didn't stop you when I understood that you wanted to escape. People like us, Anna, we crave freedom. To be our own person rather than what people want to label us as. Ironically, the privilege of freedom doesn't exist and is only imaginary."     

Anastasia wondered how much regret Prince Aiden was filled with, like her, hoping things could be different. It also made her question if he regretted chasing his freedom, which had now put his family in the cruel hands of his second brother.      

"I am sorry that you feel that way, Prince Aiden," Anastasia apologised. Because people only saw what they wanted to see, they called him the black sheep of his family without knowing the struggle he went through. Like her, he had been chasing after his freedom.      

"Aiden, Anna. I think I would like to share and rely on my friend now," Prince Aiden offered her a cheeky smile as if they hadn't had a deep conversation.      

"Your sister was a beautiful woman, Anna. Inside and out."     

"Thank you for saying that," Anastasia replied, wondering if her sister had spent time with him. She asked him, "About my sister and King Maxwell… do you know anything about their relationship?"     

Prince Aiden frowned as if to recollect and then said, "Maxwell seemed to hold an affection towards your sister," He cleared his throat and said, "Maxwell and I, uh, we are sort of alike when it comes to women… It must be something we got from our father. Maxwell did spend his time with other women, and his eyes wandered, but he enjoyed your sister's company before Lady Evin's appearance in his life."     

"I sometimes get this feeling… It's a stupid one," Anastasia's voice was low, and she said, "That she was probably more than just a courtesan to him. Something similar to a… soulmate."     

Prince Aiden's eyes widened, and he said, "I—uh, don't think so. What I mean to say is, there have been a few rare occurrences where a person has two soulmates. If what you think is true, then Maxwell wouldn't have resisted the bond, and she would have instantly been turned into his wife, but that isn't the case… Like how he's ready to kill his own siblings for harming Lady Evin; that's what a soulmate does. Irrational if you ask me."     

Anastasia wondered if Maxwell was indeed the killer, which was why a speck of guilt made him wander in the middle of the night.      

Suddenly one of the servants appeared and informed, "Prince Aiden, Mother Queen Ginger has arrived in the palace."      

"I will be there in a minute," Prince Aiden said, dismissing the servant from the corridor.      

"Thank you for answering my questions, Prince Aiden," Anastasia was about to bow her head when Aiden placed his hand on her shoulder to stop her.      

"Just Aiden. As friends, we shouldn't hold such formality between us, at least not when it is just us two alone," Prince Aiden smiled at her before disappearing from the corridor.      

[Music Recommendation: Harriet Smith and Robert- Isobel Waller]     

Anastasia finished her work with Theresa before she returned to Princess Emily in time to see the Mother Queen enter the room where Lady Evin still lay unconscious on the bed. The Mother Queen remarked,      

"Look what happens when I am gone. Disaster," she walked near the bed while the people in the room bowed at her.      

"Did you bring the antidote with you?" King Maxwell asked her, and the older woman smiled.      

"I have," the Mother Queen replied, and her hands reached for her necklace. A long pendant hung on it, which she opened by flipping its top cap. "Make the girl drink it."     

The physician took hold of the pendant containing the liquid inside and made Lady Evin drink it until the last drop. But when the black spots on the young lady's body didn't disappear, Queen Maya asked,      

"It is the right antidote, isn't it?"      

"Unless someone stole my necklace and replaced it with a similar one, yes, it is the antidote," the Mother Queen replied with a soft harrumph at the end of her sentence. She said, "It will take time for the antidote to work. The good news is that she won't die."     

The physician turned to the king, saying, "It would be good if we let the lady rest and allow her body to expel the poison slowly."     

"Emily dear, your mother received a proposal for you," the Mother Queen said, "A word with you outside on why you failed to talk to Mr. Hyde."     

Princess Emily followed her grandmother, and so did Anastasia out of the room. The princess said,      

"Grandmother, I won't be marrying Mr. Hyde."     

"I don't want you marrying him either," her grandmother stated, which had her confused. "I want you to tell me what exactly has been happening during my absence. If you have any gossip, don't be shy to share it with me. Especially about what happened in the forbidden garden because I heard you were there."     

"Yes, Grandmother," Princess Emily turned, relieved about the development regarding the marriage.      

Anastasia was the Mother Queen's coat bearer, which she now carried as she followed them, listening to the princess spill everything like a dutiful granddaughter. From King Maxwell's soulmate to the Blackthorn rose, finally ending with Prince Dante.      

"… the concubine stayed in Brother Dante's room until the wake of dawn," Princess Emily said when they reached the front of the Mother Queen's room.      

Anastasia quickly walked forward and opened the door for them, and they stepped inside.      

"I am appalled and excited about this news, Emily!" The Mother Queen exclaimed with a look of shock on her face. "I told him to deal with the situation, but I didn't expect him to finally listen to my recommended approach. Though removing the rule of no Crux, no throne is something Aziel and I have been working on, the situation is still difficult. So tell me more about this concubine!"      

"The concubine's name is Kailani. Dark hair, bright eyes. She is pretty," Princess Emily nodded in affirmation.      

The Mother Queen took a seat in her armchair, and turned to Anastasia, "You. Go and fetch this concubine who broke through the impenetrable wall."      

Anastasia offered a bow and left. Arriving at the front of the concubines' quarters, her eyes moved around the place. Some of the concubines were playing music, and at the higher ground sat Queen Maya, Lady Evin's mother and Princess Niyasa to relieve the stress they had been carrying.      

Madame Minerva walked up to her, and Anastasia felt a sliver of fear ripple through her chest. It was because, in her eyes, this woman had always been a villain who had torn her sister away from her when they had first arrived at the palace.      

"What do you want?" Madame Minerva asked, placing her hand on her waist.      

Anastasia moved her hands, pointing towards the concubines and mentioning the Mother Queen by indicating the short length of hair.      

"What the hell did you even say?" Madame Minerva turned annoyed.      

Princess Niyasa saw Anastasia and said, "That is Lily's mute maid. Let her in." Once Anastasia came near, she heard someone call 'Kailani', and she pointed her finger at her. The princess asked, "She's being summoned?"      

"It must be the Mother Queen," Lady Maya murmured, and she said, "Kailani, go with the maid."     

Anastasia led the concubine towards the Mother Queen's room, and once they were there, she took the woman inside. Going further inside, she noticed the Mother Queen holding an empty glass and a bottle of liquor in front of her.      

"Grandmother, Kailani is here," Princess Emily let her grandmother know, who had downed one glass as a 'celebration'.      

"Stand in front of me. A little closer," the Mother Queen ordered the concubine, who was more than happy to do it. "Hmmm," the old woman hummed while she took a look at the concubine's face and her other features. "I hear that you were of service to my grandson. Here, take this as a gift," she dropped a jewel into the concubine's hands.      

"Thank you so much, Mother Queen! Thank you!" Kailani thanked her, brimming with pure happiness.      

"Now, make sure that once Dante returns, I have a grandchild. The sooner, the better, you hear?" The Mother Queen ordered the concubine with a smile. Though Kailani smiled right now as she was blinded by the shine of the jewel she received, she didn't realise that having children with the first prince was a faraway dream because stepping into his bedroom would be impossible.     

While Princess Emily talked to the concubine, the Mother Queen said to Anastasia, "Fill me another glass."     

Anastasia quickly stepped forward, picking up the liquor bottle and coming closer to the Mother Queen, who didn't let go of the glass. As she poured the liquor, making sure it didn't spill, she suddenly felt the old woman stare at her.      

She hoped the woman would look back at the beautiful concubine, but instead, the woman's eyes subtly narrowed before she heard the Mother Queen murmur,      

"Why does it feel like I have seen you somewhere before, hm?" Her eyebrows rose in question, "Where?" She whispered.      

Anastasia's hands turned cold, and she held the bottle tighter. She shook her head and slowly raised her shoulders as if she didn't know. Though the Mother Queen didn't say anything and Anastasia stepped away from her, standing quietly behind, it took a couple of seconds for the old woman's gaze to shift to the concubine.      

Back in the concubine's quarters, Princess Niyasa turned to her mother and asked, "Mother, have you thought about whom to use to fill the vacant positions of the two courtesans?"     

The Vizier was the one in charge of trading with the pirates, bringing in new people so they would be assigned to the most suitable positions within the palace. Queen Maya, who was looking at the concubines, said,      

"I haven't had time to think about it because of the recent events."     

"If you don't mind, Mother… Lily's maid doesn't look that bad, and Brother Dante slept with her too. There must be something in her, no?" Princess Niyasa asked her mother.      

"She's a mute, so it would be useless to have someone like her here. Your grandmother recommended her too. Looks like she left a lasting impression on everyone," Queen Maya commented and said,      

"But let me take a closer look at her later, and see if she is fit to be a courtesan or a concubine."