✍️✍️✍️✍️ Garden Of Poison Chapter 56 - 60 Complete Chapter ✍️✍️✍️✍️



Journey on the three horses (Chapter 56)

Four weeks passed, but Lady Evin hadn't woken from her unconscious state.      
As it was unknown if the Mother Queen had lied about the antidote, she was ordered not to step out of the palace until the lady regained consciousness. Due to this, the old lady couldn't receive or send any letters without them being intercepted by the Vizier, who took her correspondence directly to Lady Maya or King Maxwell.      

In the royal court, the ministers were discussing the kingdom's affairs before King Maxwell when the double doors suddenly opened wide. A servant bowed and announced,      

"Prince Dante has returned!"      

Anastasia, who stood next to Princess Emily on the balcony on the floor above, turned to look at the entrance in time to catch the Knight of Versailles. The court turned quiet in his presence, watching every step he took towards the forefront of the room while six soldiers followed right behind him.      

Prince Dante offered a bow before he informed,      

"Brovia has been defeated and captured along with Totus. The war we waged has been successful, My King."      

Suddenly the silence was broken, and excited murmurs began to fill the room. King Maxwell smiled at the news and raised his hands for everyone to fall silent. He patted his brother's back and praised him,      

"As expected, you have done well, Dante. As a reward, I return to you the position that Father had granted me. To be the Commander of the troops and the base camp." He then turned to his ministers and said, "Following our victory, chosen officials will be appointed to swiftly journey to Brovia to lead the reconstruction efforts, as those lands now belong to Versailles."     

"Hail Versailles!"      

"Congratulations on the victory, Your Highness!" The ministers began congratulating him with smiles and excitement, even though it was Dante who had fought the war. "Long live King Maxwell!"      

The Vizier stood next to King Maxwell and asked, "Shall I arrange for a celebration, My King?"      

"Have sweets distributed throughout the kingdom so that everyone hears about it," King Maxwell ordered, and he dismissed the ministers from the court.     

The Mother Queen, who also stood on the balcony, smiled proudly. She told her two granddaughters, "Let us congratulate Dante on his victory."     

"You mean Brother Maxwell's, as it happened under his reign?" Princess Niyasa asked as they began to walk towards the stairs.      

"Hm," the Mother Queen hummed because badmouthing a king never went well. Even if one was the grandmother of the king. She said, "If we are going to keep a count of who went to war and how many of them were won, I believe Dante would be the only one to deserve the throne."      

Princess Emily quietly smiled at her grandmother's words while Princess Niyasa glared at the red-headed older woman.      

Anastasia walked behind them, and once they reached the ground floor, she positioned herself away from the members of the royal family, moving to where the other maids stood. She watched Prince Aiden and the Mother Queen hug Prince Dante, glad to see that he was alive.      

"I see that your hands have been getting better by the week."      

Anastasia turned to see who had spoken to her, and upon turning, she found Princess Niyasa staring at her. She clenched her hands because it was true. The milk-like liquid that she had been applying to her palms had been slowly improving the texture of her hands. Not to mention, as she no longer had to do any rigorous work, it had given them time to heal since she accompanied Princess Emily.      

Princess Niyasa said, "For you to take care of your hands only means that you want to elevate your position. But how unfortunate," she clicked her tongue as if upset. "The new captives will be stealing your position. Don't think I haven't forgotten how you lied to my face, and it makes me wonder what other 'talents' you are hiding."     

Anastasia now understood what Dante meant that night in the library.      

'Don't let people know that you can read. It isn't because you are a maid that you will fall into trouble.' It was because, out of all the talents she possessed, reading wasn't a skill commonly associated with a maid, but with courtesans and concubines.     

As Princess Niyasa left her side, Princess Emily appeared near Anastasia after speaking to her grandmother. The princess looked excited, and she said,      

"Anna, it is time to pack quickly!"      

Taken aback that she had to pack her clothes, Anastasia stared at the princess, a little pale-faced. Especially after the younger princess's remark. She asked, 'Where to?'     

"We are going to the old palace!" Princess Emily smiled wide at the thought of seeing her mother after many weeks. She said, "Brother Dante is going to see Lady Lucretia, and Grandmother said that as she is here to look after things, we should spend some time with our mothers. So Aiden and I are going to visit the old palace. We will be staying there for two or three days."     

Anastasia let out an internal sigh of relief because, for a moment, she was scared that the princess had agreed to elevate her status too.      

Princess Emily said in a rushed tone, "But we should do it quickly as we leave in an hour. I need you to pack your trunk too, as you will be coming with me."     

Once the trunks were ready, they were loaded onto the cart, and the servants departed ahead of the royal children. At the stable, Anastasia now stood behind Princess Emily, who said,     

"We should be fine with three horses, isn't that right, Brother Dante? Anna doesn't know how to ride a horse, and I would be happy to have her ride with me."     

But Prince Aiden had a different idea, saying, "I think we should have four horses. The more room, the better. What if one of the horses gets injured?" This way, Anastasia could learn how to ride a horse when needed, the third prince thought to himself.      

Dante stared at the maid, whom he had successfully driven out of his mind all these days, but here she was again. She didn't meet his eyes, and when she did, she averted her gaze. He remarked,      

"Three horses are enough for the ride. Mount your horses," he placed his foot on the stirrup and mounted his black horse.     

Princess Emily was next to mount her white horse, and Anastasia sat behind her before making her dress proper.      

"Are you sure you won't drop her, Lily?" Prince Aiden jokingly asked before he mounted his brown horse. He then said to Anastasia, "Hold onto my sister tightly, Anna, so that you don't fall."      

Princess Emily turned her head and instructed, "Put your hands around my waist, Anna. I am an excellent rider, you will see," she assured her maid.      

Anastasia did what she was told, and soon the horses began to clip-clop on the ground. The palace gates parted away from each other, creating an opening for them to head out.      

As they travelled, Prince Aiden was in the front, while Prince Dante positioned himself at the rear, and for some reason, Anastasia could feel his eyes on her. She wondered if she was imagining it, and out of curiosity, she slowly turned her head to meet his serious eyes. Not knowing what else to do, she fixed the shawl around her head and looked ahead.      

Princess Emily said to her, "You know, Anna, there is this little river not too far away from the old palace. It is clean and fresh, and if fortunate, you will see little fishes there. It is lovely. We should definitely visit there one day."     

"I think she would like it," Prince Aiden remarked from the front.      

"Aren't you being a little too familiar with her, Aiden? I hope you don't have any funny ideas," Princess Emily frowned in disapproval.      

"Anna and I have become friends, isn't that right, Anna?" Aiden grinned, looking over his shoulder, and Anastasia, from behind, shook her head because Prince Dante had warned her to stay away from his brother as if she was going to be a bad influence. And in a way, she had been because she had unknowingly encouraged the third prince to run away from the palace.      

"I am glad Mother is staying with Lady Lucretia and Lady Noor. This way, it avoids us having to travel too much and be apart," Princess Emily murmured as they continued their journey.      

Once they reached the old palace, Anastasia's eyes fell on the dull walls surrounded by thick bushes. The palace was smaller than the one the current king lived in, but it was still big enough for one to know this was a place for the royals.     

While getting down, Prince Aiden was kind enough to help Anastasia dismount the horse after helping his sister.      

Dante, who was tying his horse to a pole, noticed his brother's hands around the young maid's waist as he let her down from the horse.      


Ghost of the old palace (Chapter 57)

When Dante finished securing the horse's reins, his eyes still hadn't moved away from his younger brother and the maid, who stood on the other side of the brown horse. With Emily gone, who had already walked ahead of them, Aiden said to Anastasia,      
"It is good to start with a horse because you will learn to balance yourself. I have ridden camels before, and boy, did I fall off the first time."     

Dante noticed the maid smile at her brother's words, and his lips twitched. He remarked,      

"Try to help her run away again and she will be punished twice as hard as usual. You wouldn't want to disappoint your sister, who believes that she brings bad luck to her maids."     

Anastasia's and Aiden's smiles fell right away. A look of guilt appeared on Aiden's face, and he quickly said,      

"I was just telling her about the camels and h—"     

"She's Emily's maid and is supposed to be by her side, not standing here and chatting," Dante's words were cold, and his gaze held a glint of glare directed at the brown-eyed woman. He said, "There's no need to discuss unnecessary things, as when we return, she will be travelling by foot."     

Anastasia felt her heart sink upon hearing this. But then again, she was a maid, and she was expected to travel by foot. When Prince Dante walked past them, heading towards the entrance of the old palace, Prince Aiden and Anastasia quickly followed him.     

Prince Aiden said in a low voice as they began to walk, "I think I'd better not speak about horses and camels with you, at least not in front of him. I am sorry, Anna," he apologised. "If I didn't escape from the palace with you, he wouldn't be glaring at you now."     

Anastasia whispered, her feet moving quickly, "I think it's better than being dead."     

"I like your positive approach. Brother Dante hates people who break the rules, and when someone does that, it doesn't take long for him to punish them. It must be because of my sister that he hasn't punished you," Prince Aiden whispered back as they stepped inside the old palace.      

Upon reaching the drawing room, Anastasia caught sight of Lady Sophia hugging her daughter in relief. She turned and noticed Prince Dante continue to walk through the halls, probably to where his mother was resting.      

"Brother Aiden!" The youngest Blackthorn exclaimed upon seeing Prince Aiden, before he ran towards him and hugged him. "I missed you!"     

"It is good to see you too, Victor," Prince Aiden smiled and offered a bow to Lady Noor.      

Once the young boy let go of Prince Aiden, Lady Sophia wrapped her arms around her son and sighed,      

"I am so happy to see you both here. I have been worried sick since we moved here that something would happen to you both. The only news I could rely on was Dante's, but he had gone to fight the war. How have you been?" She asked, pulling away from her son. "Are they treating you well?"      

Prince Aiden smiled at his mother and said, "Emily and I have been doing fine. And with Grandmother and Brother Dante back, things are better."      

"Where is Mother Queen?" Lady Noor asked before adding, "Aziel said she would be visiting soon, but we haven't heard a word from her since she left."     

Princess Emily replied, "Brother Maxwell has confined Grandmother in the palace until Lady Evin wakes up. It should just be a matter of time before she does, as the spots have disappeared from her body."     

"If we were there, this probably wouldn't have happened," Lady Sophia murmured, feeling a bitter taste in her mouth.      

Her husband had married her, and it was his duty to protect her and their children. But he had left them in an uncertain place. Not only did she have to fight for his affection, which he shared with other women, but she also had to fight for her son's right to the throne, which had slipped right through her fingers.      

She said with a smile, "Why don't you children clean yourself up? The maids will set out dinner so that we can have it together."      

At dinner, Anastasia and two other maids who belonged to Lady Sophia and Lady Lucretia helped set the table. Once the royal family members finished eating, she helped clean the table and then assisted in the kitchen, as the old palace was short on staff, which was expected.      

One of the older maids instructed Anastasia, "Bring this to Lady Lucretia's room."     

Anastasia noticed the dark liquid in the glass that was handed to her. She asked, 'What is this?'     

"This is freshly ground ginger, honey and pepper, which has been boiled. It helps ease the congestion Lady Lucretia suffers from. Go now," the older maid said.      

Taking the glass with her, Anastasia made her way to Lady Lucretia's room at the far end of the ground floor, while Lady Sophia's and Lady Noor's rooms were upstairs. When she reached the room, she heard the woman's voice.      

"… better to stay here than subject yourself to mistrust for me. Oddly, Lady Sophia has been quiet, refraining from her usual remarks. Noor has been helpful, as usual, coming around here to talk with me for a few minutes."     

"Sharing the same problem sometimes brings people closer." It was Prince Dante's voice.     

Anastasia hesitated to knock on the door, and though she didn't intend to eavesdrop, it happened anyway. She heard Lady Lucretia from the other side of the door,      

"As harsh as the decision was, I can empathise with Maya's choice. Everyone is simply trying to ensure their children are safe and won't be executed after King William's death."     

Not wanting the liquid to turn cold, Anastasia knocked on the door and heard Prince Dante,      

"Come in."     

Opening the door, Anastasia stepped inside the room and offered a deep bow. She raised her hand, presenting the glass she had brought for the lady.      

"Who is this? I don't think I have seen her before." Lady Lucretia hadn't noticed the maid before because she was sick and trying to keep traces of blood off her lips.      

"She's Emily's maid," Prince Dante answered his mother, who sat on the couch with a blanket spread over her legs.      

"I didn't pay attention to her before. What's your name, girl?" Lady Lucretia asked in a friendly tone with a gentle smile.      

"Anna," Prince Dante replied, and Lady Lucretia turned to her son as if asking whether he was going to answer every question himself, "She cannot speak."     

"That's sad," Lady Lucretia murmured before she started to cough, and she brought her dull handkerchief to her mouth.     

The cough sounded painful as it filled the room. When Lady Lucretia's body started to shake, Anastasia observed Prince Dante come to his mother's side and hold her until she calmed down. When Anastasia offered the glass by bringing it forward, she heard Prince Dante order her,      

"Take a sip from it."     

Anastasia stared back at him, realising how protective he was of his mother. He was making sure it wasn't poisoned. She brought the glass up to her lips and took a sip without touching the glassware. Once he saw her gulp it down, he took it from her before helping his mother drink.      

"Do you need me to get the physician?" Prince Dante asked his mother when she began to cough again, resting against his chest.     

"I am fine…" came the frail voice of Lady Lucretia. "I think a little rest should help."     

When Prince Dante carried his mother to the bed, laying her down before pulling the blanket up to her chest, Anastasia caught sight of the couch's surface, stained with the lady's blood. Pulling out a cloth and bringing in water, she removed the blood stains. At that time, she caught a glimpse of Lady Lucretia slowly falling asleep while her son sat on the edge of the bed.     

Anastasia stepped out of the room, carefully closing the door behind her and leaving the prince with his mother.      

After finishing the rest of her work, she went to the room she would reside in for the rest of her stay in the old palace. Changing into her night dress, she climbed into her bed and quickly fell asleep.      

Her consciousness descended deep into the realm of her dreams as she chased after Marianne. Before she had the opportunity to catch hold of her sister, she woke up to see the dark ceiling of the room.      

She stared at the ceiling for a long time as her eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room. When she heard a sound coming from outside her room, her eyes moved to look at the closed door. She saw a shadow pass by her room, alerting her.      

Climbing out of bed, she inched closer to the door before opening it and peeking out at the corridor, but there was no sign of anyone there. Then she, yet again, heard the distinct sound of doors opening and closing in the quiet night.      

Anastasia's bare feet padded on the wooden flooring, and she vigilantly moved until she came near one of the rooms, from which a stream of light spilled out. When she reached the entrance, she found Prince Dante rummaging through the cabinets.      

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She cleared her throat to gain his attention, and he turned to look over his shoulder. She asked him, "Was there something you needed, Prince Dante?"      

"I don't suppose you know where the liquor bottles are," Dante stated, closing the cabinet door that he had opened and turning to face her. He looked a little tired, as if he hadn't slept.      

"No…" Anastasia responded.     

"Thought not," Dante responded before going through the other cabinets. With a frown marring his forehead, he said, "My grandmother must have finished the bottles when she was here."     

When he moved closer to the candle stand, Anastasia's eyes widened on seeing a wet patch on his shirt, and she exclaimed, alarmed, "I—Is that blood? You are bleeding…"      

But Dante seemed already aware of it, as evidenced by his unfazed expression. He questioned, "Didn't I tell you not to wander in the middle of the night?"      

Anastasia took a second to look away from his shirt and meet his emotionless eyes. She said, "I had trouble falling back asleep."      

Dante stared at her for a second longer before he said, "Do you know which is the Mother Queen's room? It is on the upper floor. Check inside the cupboards; there should be at least one bottle that has been saved. Go."     

Anastasia nodded and went to the Mother Queen's room, going through the cupboards in the dark as quietly as possible so that she wouldn't wake anyone on the same floor. Once her hand touched the neck of a bottle, she grabbed it and went down to where Dante was.      

When Anastasia returned to the room Dante was in, she heard him, "Close the door behind you."     

Pushing the door closed and hearing it click, Anastasia turned around and approached the table where Dante stood. On the table were things like needles, gauges and other such tools. He stretched his hand forward, and she quickly handed the liquor bottle to him.      

Anastasia watched him pull out the cork before taking three gulps. Filled with uncertainty, she asked,      

"Should I fetch the physician, Prince?"      

Dante placed the bottle on the table with a light thud and he leaned his lower back against the table. He asked, "Do you know where to find one at this hour?" His hands reached for the buttons of his shirt, and he began to unbutton it.      

Anastasia's eyes looked away from his hands, and she shook her head.      

"Don't do things I didn't ask for when you can't even follow what I have told you before." Dante continued to stare at her until he reached the last of the buttons. He flinched when he parted the shirt, and Anastasia's eyes fell on a deep, bloody wound a little above the abdomen.      

He must have received this during the war, Anastasia thought to herself.      

The Knight of Versailles had made people believe that the war he had fought had been easy, as only a few bruises were visible on his face and arms. He walked without flinching, and his composure was so put together that it didn't raise any questions about the hardships he went through.      

Anastasia's mind drifted back to Lady Lucretia leaning against Prince Dante. The weight of her body or the force of her grip must have put pressure on the wound. Yet the prince had patiently sat there next to her, offering his company.      

"If you are here to gawk, you can get out. Or make yourself useful by bringing the light closer," Dante's words broke through Anastasia's thoughts, and she quickly picked up the candle stand and stood next to him.      

Dante poured the liquor into a glass and then dipped some cotton balls into it. He then used them to clean the surrounding area of the wound. Apart from the illumination as he sewed up his wound, he didn't ask for her assistance, and though the pain on his face didn't show as much as it did on Anastasia's, his eyes hardened with every stitch of the needle into his skin.      

Anastasia asked him, "Was the wound not stitched before?"      

"The physician did a lousy job, and the wound opened during the travel back," Dante responded with his eyes focused on his wound as he continued to work on closing it. When his eyes looked up, Anastasia's brown eyes moved to meet his gaze.      

Anastasia quickly looked down at his wound, feeling him stare as if he was waiting to pick on a fault of hers, ready to reprimand her. When he resumed pushing the needle out, she heard him say,      

"Everyone who brings my mother food and drink is supposed to eat and drink a sample before she consumes it."     

"I understand," Anastasia nodded. "It never hurts to be careful."     

"Mm," Dante hummed.      

To fill the silence, she asked him, "Do you think someone is waiting to hurt Lady Lucretia?"      

"It has been many years since the late king distanced himself away from my mother and took away her privileges and status. But people can be unpredictable, and like you said, it doesn't hurt to be careful," Dante remarked, and he grimaced when he extracted the needle along with the thread.      

Somewhere deep down in his mind, there had been moments where he wished he could catch someone who was the cause of his mother's ill health. Because that would mean there would be hope of her getting better. But there had been no foul play, and her declining health needed to be cared for.      

With the wound closed, Dante buttoned his shirt back up and took another sip of the liquor to dull the pain. Cocking his head, he stared at the maid, who was now cleaning the table by gathering the things that were used so they could be thrown out or washed.      

The fringes of her hair partially obscured her eyes, which were fixed on the table. There was a softness to her appearance, letting him know that even though she had gone through a harsh life as a maid, she had been untouched by the ugliness of the palace.      

"I thought you would be revolted at the sight of the blood. Many can't handle it," Dante remarked, and Anastasia turned to look at him.      

"I am not particularly fond of it," Anastasia softly murmured before adding, "I see my sister every night. The same way I found her. Covered in blood." She paused for a moment and then asked, "Does it get better?"      

She could only imagine the gore that had surrounded him after fighting so many wars. His lips twisted as he stared into her brown eyes and said, "Depends on what kind of person you are—whether you choose to sink to become one with it, or choose to sink within it and succumb to death."     

Anastasia was tempted to ask which kind of person he was, but she feared that she already knew the answer.      

Their gazes broke away from one another when they heard footsteps echoing outside in the corridor.      

"Who is awake in there?" Minister Aziel had woken up to relieve himself when he noticed light beneath the door of one of the rooms.      

"Why is he awake at this hour?" Dante muttered with a scowl. He grabbed Anastasia's hand and, in the other, took hold of the burning candle stand before pulling her down to duck below the table and behind the chairs.      

"W—Why are we hiding?" Anastasia asked him, confused.      

Her eyes met Dante's calm ones, and he turned to the candles before blowing them out to bring darkness into the room. She heard him say, "Stay quiet, lest you want to assume the role of a courtesan."     

His grandmother only needed a speck of hope to make things difficult for him, Dante thought in his mind. Not to mention, it wasn't something this woman wanted either.      

Anastasia realised the precarious position she had put herself in by staying next to the prince in the middle of the night again, which could blow out of proportion like it did last time.      

She heard the door to the room open, and she peeked through the gap of the chair, seeing Minister Aziel holding a candle in his hand and looking around from the front of the room with a sleepy look on his face before he shut the door closed.      

"I will take the first-aid box. You can go back to your room," Dante said, which had Anastasia turn towards him.      

But when Dante stretched his hand out, he felt a pull on the wound that he had just stitched, making him wince slightly from the pain, and at the same time, his hand accidentally brushed against the palm of her free hand. Self-conscious about her calloused hands, Anastasia was startled, and she hastily moved to stand up, only to hit the underside of the table.      

"What do you think you are doing?!" Dante scowled.      

"My apologies!" Anastasia pushed the first-aid box to him before getting up, bowing, and bolting out of the room.     

Unaware of what had happened just now, Dante stared at the open door through which the maid had run out.      

When morning arrived, Anastasia helped Princess Emily get ready before she joined the kitchen staff to serve breakfast to the royal family members in the dining room. Right now, she was carrying a basket of bread in one hand, and in the other, she carried a platter of peeled and cut fruits.      

"I thought I saw a ghost in the corridor last night, milady," Minister Aziel spoke with a deep frown. "I was walking back to my room when it whooshed by and scared the living daylights out of me!"      

"It must be the Mother Queen's beloved cat," Lady Sophia said seriously as Anastasia quietly poured water into everyone's glasses while feeling the murderous gaze of Prince Dante. "There are no ghosts in here, and even if you find one, don't tell us." She muttered, "The last thing any of us need is the company of the dead."     

"I don't think I have heard any ghost stories about this place," Princess Emily murmured.      

"Because there are none," Lady Sophia stated as she ate.      

But Minister Aziel was sure it wasn't a cat; unless it could transform into a giant creature, he thought to himself.      

"I would like some water," Prince Aiden raised his glass and smiled at Anastasia.      

Anastasia wished the third prince wouldn't give more reasons for his brother to glare at her. But then, at the same time, he was only asking for water, and she was a maid serving the food.      

"Mother," Princess Emily began and said, "I will be going to the riverbank today. It has been so long since I last visited it, and the maids are going there to clean the clothes."     

"Take the guards with you," Lady Sophia said in a strict voice, and Princess Emily beamed excitedly.      

Prince Aiden began, "That's great! I will be coming wit—"      

"You will be coming with me. We are going to the nearby town to meet a few ministers," Dante remarked, killing his younger brother's budding excitement.     


Consequences of repeating the memories(Chapter 58)

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The horses pulled the carriage cart in which clothes, bedsheets and other things that needed to be washed were piled.      

Though Princess Emily had left the old palace on her white horse, when she reached the village, she had dismounted from it and now walked alongside her maid. Four maids walked ahead of them, and four guards followed behind, leading the horse.      

"The weather feels so good," Princess Emily smiled and she fixed her dark brown dress, feeling the warmth of the sun and the cool breeze from the trees surrounding them on her half-veiled face.      

Anastasia couldn't agree more and asked, 'Lots of trees in here?'     

"You are right, there are lots of trees in here," Princess Emily nodded as they walked through the village. She said, "It is probably because it is far from the royal palace, where the curse originated, and its effects must have weakened by the time it reached here. Otherwise, this area was very rich in its flora and fauna, and there is also the Hamding River that runs through the village before reaching a forest. If we are lucky, we might be able to see some rain while we are here."     

Some of the people in the village came by to take a look at the princess, and a few of them even greeted her,     

"Princess Emily, good health to you!"     

"You look lovely as usual, Princess Emily! It is so good to see you here!"      

Anastasia noticed the princess waving her hand at the villagers, and soon two young women and two young men appeared in front of them. The guards, on high alert, drew their swords in response to the commoners' audacity.      

"It's fine! Don't hurt them!" Princess Emily stopped the guards by raising both of her hands.      

"Princess Emily, we weren't expecting you here," One of the young women, who had blonde hair, bowed and said, "Zain said that he thought he saw you last evening, but he was unsure. I hope you are here for a long time?"      

"Two or three days at the most before we return to the royal palace. It is good to see you, Naila," Princess Emily smiled at the young woman.      

"That seems like a short visit. But we are glad you are here, Princess," said the other woman, with dimples in her cheeks.      

"I am glad to be here too, Alora. I was hoping to meet with you all," Princess Emily said, and she turned to Anastasia and said, "Anna, these are my friends whom I used to play with here when I was young. This is Naila, Alora, and these two here are Zain and Issac."     

So the princess did spend a little time away from the palace and mingled with the commoners when she visited the old palace, Anastasia thought to herself.      

"Where is Prince Aiden? We have missed him immensely," the young man with wavy brown hair asked.      

"He's out with Brother Dante for work, but he should return soon," Princess Emily responded politely.      

"Oh…" came the quiet response from them, and Anastasia took it that the princess's acquaintances weren't particularly eager to meet the first prince because of his intimidating demeanour.      

"Princess, it looks like you are heading to the river. How about Alora and I accompany you? We have our own clothes that need to be washed. If you don't mind the company," the woman named Naila asked, not wanting to impose.      

"It should be okay. The more, the merrier," Princess Emily smiled.      

The young man named Issac asked, "Then you wouldn't mind us tagging along, would you, Princess?" He added, "It would be a shame to not reminisce about our memories." And though he said those words, his eyes shifted to look at the maid, who stood beside the princess, curious to find out more about her.      

"Ah, I guess… If you are good at cleaning clothes," Princess Emily raised her eyebrows, and the two young men burst out laughing before nodding.      

"We will help your maids to finish the work quickly. And this way the princess will have more free time, along with the maids?" Issac asked, before they began to head together to the riverside.      

On their way, Anastasia noticed how Princess Emily looked happier in their company than when she was in the royal palace, as she was supposed to behave in a certain way. It brought a smile to her face.      

"I don't think I caught your name. I am Issac," the young man, who was probably around the princess's age, introduced himself.      

Anastasia stared at the man, pursing her lips, and heard him ask, "Did the princess deny your right to speak?"      

"Anna cannot speak." Princess Emily, who had heard Issac's question, answered for her.      

Anastasia offered a bow to the princess, wondering when the princess would get tired of telling people she couldn't speak. But then, at the same time, the guilt and the thought of Emily finding out that she was being lied to worried her.      

"Oh, okay," Issac responded, as he continued to walk next to her. He asked her, "Is this your first time visiting here? I am sure I would have known if you had been here before."     

Anastasia was not used to attention, at least not from a male who was blatantly interested in her. Taking it to be a friendly one, she nodded to his question.      

Issac said, "So I was right." And when Anastasia offered a small smile, the young man's smile grew wider.      

By the time Anastasia reached the river with the others, she could feel Issac's constant gaze on her, and she avoided meeting his eyes out of awkwardness. The man openly gawked at her until his sister, Alora, elbowed him.      

The sight of the river that gently flowed and the sound of the water hitting the small rocks near the riverbank brought Anastasia a sense of happiness, reminding her of the village she came from.      

The guards stood a few steps behind Princess Emily, who sat on the riverbank, watching and talking to the people as they began to wash their clothes with clean water. Anastasia quietly worked with the other maids, and noticed that no matter how friendly Princess Emily was, the four people from the village always addressed her as princess, as if an invisible line had been drawn, never to be crossed.      

Once the clothes were mostly done, with only a few items left, Issac proposed, "You know what we should do? Throw a celebration for Princess Emily tomorrow, as she's visiting us after such a long time."      

"That is very kind of you, Issac, but I must refuse," Princess Emily didn't want to impose on them, nor did she believe that her mother would approve of her time in the village. She said, "I came here with my brothers to spend time with my mother; it would be rude to spend time outside."     

"Maybe we can make a request to Queen Sophia? You will have your maid and your mother with you. It will just be for the evening, and no longer," Naila asked with a hopeful expression.     

"I will think about it," Princess Emily politely smiled.      

"Princess Emily, do you remember when we used to come here when we were little? Playing in the water, and how my sister almost drowned along with Prince Aiden," Issac chuckled at the memory. "We used to splash water at each other."     

"Aiden and I still speak about this place," Princess Emily said, "Wishing we were still little."     

Zain, who was Anastasia's age, said, "Don't let age stop you from doing things, Princess. See," he cupped some water in one of his hands before splashing it on Issac.      

Issac went to splash water at Zain, which also landed on his sister, and soon there was a water fight to see who could splash more water on each other. Anastasia and Princess Emily weren't spared from the water being splashed on them, so they joined in on the harmless fun, as did the maids.      

And while they continued to splash water on each other, with their laughter and chatter echoing off the banks of the river, they failed to notice the arrival of the first and third Blackthorn princes.      

On noticing the princes, the guards quickly bowed deeply, unsure of how to explain the water fight. Prince Aiden became excited, smiling, and when he turned to look at his elder brother, his excitement evaporated because of the fuming sun next to him.      

When Dante came here to pick up his sister and enjoy the sight of the running river, this was the last thing he had expected to see. Everyone in the river was drenched from head to toe. It wasn't just that they weren't acting how one was supposed to behave for their age, but that the women's clothes stuck to their bodies in the company of the two males.      

His eyes narrowed further on noticing one of the males splash water at Anastasia while she smiled and tried to dodge it. As if that wasn't bad enough, her beige cotton dress had turned semi-transparent, revealing her bosom when water wasn't splashed on her. And he wasn't the only one who noticed this; so did the young man who had been splashing water at her, and his face turned pink.      

Before his brother's mood worsened at the sight before him, Prince Aiden loudly called his sister, "Lily!"     

Princess Emily heard Aiden's voice, and she turned to look, the smile quickly falling from her face on noticing Aiden quietly telling her to get out of the water, while her elder brother looked furious.      

"Brother Dante…" Anastasia heard Princess Emily whisper.      

When Anastasia followed the princess's gaze, her face paled on seeing Prince Dante's expression. The others quickly noticed their presence, and the sounds of water splashing died down, leaving only the sound of the flowing river.      

Princess Emily stepped out of the river at her younger brother's direction.      

"Aiden, take Emily back," Dante ordered, and without questioning him, Aiden and Emily disappeared from there with the guards. "Do you need a special invitation to get out?" His question was directed at Anastasia. She didn't have to be told twice, and she quickly got out of the river.      

Gentleman or not?(chapter 59)

Anastasia didn't turn back to look at the others as she stepped out of the river, her feet moving as quickly as possible, and she came to stand before Prince Dante. Holding her hands in front of her, she stared at the prince's black shoes.     
When they had begun to splash water on each other, Anastasia had forgotten her age, along with Princess Emily, who had forgotten about her status. A princess behaving in such a fashion was frowned upon. She wondered how much the princess would be reprimanded for not behaving properly in public.      

"Please don't scold Princess Emily," Anastasia's voice was just loud enough for Dante to hear. "We were only—"     

"Did I say that you could speak?" Dante's words were harsh on Anastasia's ears, and she softly gulped when she heard him say, "Worry about yourself before others."      

The other four commoners quietly stepped out of the river and wiped the water off their faces and clothes. But they didn't get closer to Dante Blackthorn, feeling the hostile and daunting atmosphere around him.      

"Greetings to you, Prince Dante," Naila tried to break the silence from where she stood, but Dante didn't react.      

It wasn't that he didn't hear them, just that his eyes were focused on Anastasia.      

Dante's midnight eyes followed the water droplets that dripped from her hair onto her shoulders, and how some slid from her face, moving down her slender throat and travelling down her chest. When his eyes fell on her bosom, which was covered by her now semi-transparent dress, his eyes darkened. With them standing in broad daylight, unlike last time when it was night, his eyes could clearly see the fabric outlining the shape of her breasts and revealing the tips.      

When a little breeze passed where they stood, Anastasia held her hands tighter to stop herself from shivering. This led to her arms squeezing against her bosom, which only pushed them further against the fabric of her dress.      

Dante clenched his jaw when he noticed that the tips had hardened because of the water and the air, and now pressed forward as if wanting to break free from the fabric. He forcefully tore his gaze away from her and looked behind her.      

"Greetings, Prince Dante," the others murmured from afar, bowing at him.      

But the first prince was looking for something else as his eyes raked through the four commoners. He had left his coat back in the old palace, not bothering to carry it. His lips twisted in annoyance.      

Not wanting the young maid's assets to be displayed more than they already were, Dante said, "We will be leaving."      

"Prince Dante!" The young man named Issac called out when he noticed the prince and the maid leaving.      

Dante turned his head and heard the man continue, "We are throwing a little celebration for Princess Emily's visit. There will be food. We would feel very fortunate if you were to grace us with your presence."     

The young man's sister whispered, "Do you have a death wish?!"      

Anastasia couldn't help but look over her shoulder, where the other three people looked stunned and shocked. Issac added, "It will be tomorrow evening, in the village."     

She was sure that Dante was going to ignore the man's existence, as if he hadn't heard him. But instead he said,      

"You can send the sweets to the old palace. I am sure Emily would like to taste them."     

When Dante began to walk again, Anastasia offered an apologetic smile to the four people and saw the man named Issac waving at her with a smile.      

As she followed Dante, Anastasia noticed that they weren't walking in the direction she had come from earlier. Unsure, she asked,      

"Prince Dante… I don't think this is the way back to the village and the old palace…."     

"I know," came the curt response from Dante, as he walked with long strides. He hadn't turned to look at her since they had left the riverbank.      

Anastasia wondered where they were going, and as she walked, the soil and silt started to stick to her feet. After a few minutes, they reached a place where denser trees surrounded them. A little worried, she asked him,      

"Where are we going?"      

"To take a walk," Dante responded ahead of her, his words coming out a little stiffly.      

Anastasia frowned. She stopped when a dried stem got stuck to the back of her dress, trailing behind her and making a scraping noise. She turned at the waist, using her hands to reach for the stem by lifting the back of her skirt and disentangling it.      

Hearing her footsteps stop, Dante finally turned to look at Anastasia. She had stopped again to wring out the back of her skirt. When she turned back to the front, about to bend down to pick up the front of her dress to squeeze the water out, he quickly grabbed hold of her shoulder to stop her from bending over and pushed her.      

[Music Recommendation: Observatory Kiss- Kris Bowers]     

"…!" A gasp escaped from Anastasia's lips when the rough bark of the tree collided with her back.     

"I will kill you!" Dante's eyes glowed as he spoke through his gritted teeth, a glint of red passing by his midnight eyes.      

Even though the words were threatening, if Anastasia had paid close attention to them, she would have noticed the frustration in them. Dante felt like he was being taunted by this woman, even though he was trying to do the right thing by not imposing himself on her.      

Anastasia, who had jumped at his threat, pleaded with her brown eyes wide, "Please, don't kill me." Did she annoy him by stopping instead of walking? When she parted her lips to explain, "Prince Dante, I—" She felt his grip on her shoulder tighten.     

"Didn't I tell you not to talk out of turn?" Dante's gaze burned right into her. His patience had been wearing thin, and this woman had finally snapped it.      

Dante didn't want to hear another word from her.      

Though his Crux had quietly made its appearance, as if healing, he still felt nothing when he touched her, and it only meant she wasn't the one. He didn't want to imitate the cruel actions of his father, bedding women because he misunderstood it to be a soulmate connection.      

Even if he did bed her, what would be the point? She would be elevated from a maid to his concubine, while he would be married to a lady of higher status because a concubine and courtesan weren't allowed to take the position of a wife. And this one wanted to run away, but he wouldn't let her break more rules, not under his watch.      

It wasn't as if Dante hadn't been sexually aroused by some women in the past, but he had learned to control his urges, unlike his two brothers. But this woman was taunting and testing his tolerance in more ways than one.      

Dante heard the intake of her breath when his hold on her shoulder tightened as if subconsciously wanting to claim her. He felt the softness of her skin under his touch.      

"P—Prince Dante," Anastasia said, becoming worried, not knowing why the prince was staring at her intensely.      

"Do you always have to address me by my name when you are talking?" Dante asked her, and he noticed a drop of water fall from her hair to the side of her neck.      

Anastasia felt his hand graze her neck, and soft warning bells dinged in the back of her mind. Was he going to kill her? Her chest heaved in anxiousness.      

"I, how else am I supposed to address you?" At the same time, Anastasia felt his finger brush against her neck.      

Dante wiped away the water droplet that had been causing him trouble, along with this woman. So many ways, his mind answered her question.      

Anastasia noticed him looking off into the distance behind her and heard him say, "Don't use my name. It is annoying." She quickly complied by nodding, but that didn't make him release her neck. She apologised,      

"Pardon us for earlier in the river."      

Perhaps Anastasia shouldn't have brought it up, as unbeknownst to her, Dante had been distracted by her.      

Dante's eyes shifted back to look at the doe-eyed woman, narrowing slightly. She either lacked self-awareness or else was plain ignorant, but one could be ignorant only to a certain extent, and a lesson had to be taught so that she was attentive.      

Feeling Dante loom over her, Anastasia wondered if she had stepped on his nerves. Although the annoyance and anger that had lurked in his eyes had disappeared, a dark gleam remained in them.      

"Should we g—!" Anastasia began, only to pause when she felt the prince's finger graze along her neckline.      

"You seem to have a lowered guard in front of men for someone who wants to escape the palace," Dante murmured. She then heard him say, "Your appearance today, drenched and dripping in water, attracted male gazes. Do you know how a man's mind works… Anastasia?"     

Anastasia's heart raced; she was nervous and scared at the same time, as she had never encountered something like this before. Was he trying to scare her?!      

"T—they were good people. Friends, and they didn't mean a—" Anastasia's words caught in her throat when Dante's index finger traced down her neckline, brushing against her skin, making her breath hitch.      

"Naive to think that a gentleman doesn't wear sheep's clothing. That they don't have impure thoughts when they see a ripened woman ready to be plucked," Dante taunted her. When his finger grazed even lower, hooking the centre of the dress's neckline, Anastasia's hand went to stop his hand, but he was quick to grab it firmly.      

Anastasia's heart began to pound, feeling the prince lean closer than ever. She said hurriedly, "I wasn't waiting to be plucked."      

"Are you sure?" Dante's eyes briefly moved to her lips before he said in a low tone, "Because your appearance says otherwise," and he let go of her wrist and her dress before taking a step back.      

Awareness dawning on her at his words, Anastasia quickly crossed her hands in front of her chest and turned away from him. She had been so absorbed with the thought that, as adults, she had played in the river with the princess, that she hadn't paid attention to her dress. She closed her eyes, embarrassed. Not once, but twice now. No… it was the third time.      

Even worse, how many people had noticed it this time? Mortified by his words, her cheeks were set aflame. Kill me, Anastasia said in her mind.     

"Let's walk around here for a little longer, before we head back to the old palace," Anastasia heard Dante say, and she opened her eyes. She turned to find him starting to walk before he remarked, "Maybe the next time you plan to go near water, wear dark clothes."      

She opened her mouth to respond in agreement, but too embarrassed, no words came out of her lips and she pursed them instead.     

Anastasia awkwardly followed him without a word, while internally scolding herself. She was still trying to catch her breath from what Dante had said and did. Though he walked many steps ahead of her, her skin continued to hold the memory of his finger tracing it.      

She stared at the back of his head as they continued to walk and bit her bottom lip in thought. She remembered the words he had spoken to her.     

'Naive to think that a gentleman doesn't wear sheep's clothing.'     

Anastasia hadn't expected Prince Dante to behave… dauntingly like that. He always wore such a serious expression that she hadn't expected to witness this side of him.      

Even though his words implied he wasn't a gentleman, Anastasia was grateful that he didn't turn to look at her as they walked in the forest. She wondered what side Dante fell on—gentleman or not.     


Looking outside the window(Chapter 60)

A super long chapter ^.~ Though I do would like to know if you prefer the long chapters or broken ones to read.     

By the time Anastasia and Dante passed by the village, she didn't have to be embarrassed about her dress being transparent, as it had dried. The distance she had kept between herself and the first prince while they travelled through the forest had begun to close, and she was now only two steps away from him.      

As they walked away from the village, heading back to the old palace, Dante's gaze moved to the corner of his vision where he could hear Anastasia's footsteps. He questioned her,      

"What happened last night?"      

Anastasia's eyes looked at Prince Dante, and she asked in a whisper, "What?"      

"You ran out of the room to end up being the ghost Aziel saw," Dante reminded her, and his footsteps briefly slowed down, and he caught the look of surprise on Anastasia's face.     

"T—That, you touched my hand. Forgive me for rushing away like that without saying a word!" Anastasia offered him a bow. The fringes of her hair had come loose from her bun, which now hovered around the sides of her temples.      

"Do you hate being touched, or is it that you felt repulsed because it was me?" Dante questioned her, while he looked ahead. Many people avoided being touched by his bare hands as if a curse would befall them. It was one of the reasons he wore gloves. And yesterday, this woman's actions had left him irritated the entire night, because it wasn't the first time she had done that.      

Anastasia answered, "I thought you were disgusted…My hands," as if it were obvious, and she raised her hands before turning her palms upwards, facing the sky.      

Dante turned to look at the brown-eyed woman, and when his eyes fell on her palms, he asked, "What about them?"      

Anastasia's eyebrows furrowed, and she looked at her calloused palms. Her hands had developed hardened uneven patches where the skin had toughened and turned discoloured, with some of the spots darker than the smoother parts of her skin. With doubt in her voice, she addressed him, "They are rough, Prince Dante. I am sorry!" She quickly apologised, remembering that he asked her not to call him by his name. She then said, "They aren't smooth or soft, and people don't like to have their skin grazed or touched by them…" Her voice trailed when she caught him staring at her.      

"How foolish," Dante remarked, slightly rolling his eyes, and he looked ahead again.      

"But last night… when you touched my hand, you sounded disapproving," Anastasia squeezed the fingers of the hand she held with the other.      

Dante turned to give her a slight glare, as if her words held an incorrect assumption. His footsteps paused, and so did hers. He then requested, "Let me see them again." When she opened her palms for him, his eyes raked over them before he said, "I don't see anything wrong with them."     

"They are unpleasant to the touch…" Anastasia said softly. Though they were getting better little by little, thanks to Princess Emily.      

"Isn't that because you worked hard as a lower maid before turning into a princess's personal maid?" Dante's head tilted to the side as he questioned her. "The marks on your body hold a story, or a tale of struggle. They speak of your hard work. There's nothing to be ashamed of," and he started to walk ahead.     

Anastasia followed him, staring at her palms before dropping them to her side. Maybe it wasn't a big deal to the first prince. To switch the subject, she asked him, "How is your wound today, Prince?"      

"The stitches want to undo themselves against my skin, but better," Dante said curtly, before returning to the previous subject and adding, "Does the condition of your hands bother you?"      

"Yes, it does. I believe it is because soft hands are expected of a woman, " Anastasia responded. "Every time someone touches my hands, they feel disgusted and have something to say about them, as well as me. Though I should have gotten used to it by now. It reminds me of my station and the circumstances of being far from home…" she bit the inside of her cheek when Dante's eyes moved to look at her.      

Feeling Dante's eyes on her, Anastasia walked on awkwardly. She then heard him question her, "What were your plans after you thought you could successfully run away from Versailles?"      

'Thought' Anastasia's ears picked up on the word, as if he was sure she wouldn't be able to get away in the future. As their eyes locked, they stared at each other as if challenging the other, and it was fortunate that the street they were walking on was deserted, so that no one would notice that the maid was being given leave to stare back at the royal prince.      

As if realising what she was doing, Anastasia was the first to look away, because the first prince's eyes were too intense for her to handle. She said,      

"My sister and I planned to reunite with our parents. We hoped that they were still alive and to meet the sibling we never got the opportunity to know before we were kidnapped from the village and brought to Versailles…"     

"And," Dante prompted her to continue.      

Anastasia wondered if Prince Dante found amusement in her feeble attempt at a plan in his mind. She said, "Apart from the freedom to be our own person and not be owned by anyone, my sister and I would find decent prospects to marry. We would have husbands that we wouldn't have to share with other women, and children to dote on. A simple life of working on a farm."     

Once they arrived at the old palace, Anastasia went to thank Prince Dante, but he didn't stop and continued to walk inside the palace.      

"Thank you for today, Prince Dante," Anastasia whispered, even though he had disappeared from her sight and couldn't hear her.      

'I will kill you!'      

Anastasia could still hear the prince's threat echo in her ears. And as harsh as his words were, he had shielded her from the lewd gazes of any other people by having her walk away from the village until her dress was no longer transparent.      

She had heard enough about Prince Dante's harshness from the other maids and Marianne, which was why she was thankful towards him for protecting her chasteness like he protected Princess Emily.      

When Anastasia walked through the halls, heading towards the kitchen, she heard someone whisper to her,      

"Anna! Here!" It was Prince Aiden who had called her, and behind him stood Princess Emily. Wondering what the siblings were up to, she made her way over to them awkwardly, still feeling self-conscious because of the earlier state of her dress.      

A little worried, Princess Emily asked, "Did Brother Dante scold Naila and the others? For splashing water."     

Anastasia shook her head, and the princess sighed. She then asked, "What took you both so long then?"      

Prince Aiden answered, "They walked back, Lily. Of course it would take time, unlike us who rode on horseback."      

"Ah, yes," Princess Emily nodded and said, "I thought Brother Dante would have reprimanded them. But it is good to hear that it didn't happen. He looked furious."      

Prince Aiden said in wonder, "I don't know if I should be upset that I missed the fun, or scold you for thinking it was alright to get into the water with the others, where word of it could reach Mother."      

"I don't think Brother Dante will tell on us, will he?" There was a slight hint of doubt in Princess Emily's voice as she asked him.      

"That remains to be seen. If only it was easier to read what he was thinking," Prince Aiden murmured. Princess Emily stared at her maid before commenting,      

"Anna, you should wear the fringes of your hair this way more often, rather than combing them back. It looks much better on you this way. Don't you agree, Aiden?" After her hair had dried, Anastasia had forgotten to fix her hair, and she prayed the princess wouldn't recognise Tasia in her, but with all that had happened, the princess barely remembered it.      

Hearing someone knock on the door outside, Prince Aiden said, "Looks like someone is here."      

The three of them walked towards the entrance, and they found Issac standing near the front door with a big basket in his hand. Prince Aiden whispered to his sister, "Why don't you head inside?" He didn't want Dante to catch their sister in the male's company, who had thrown water on her earlier.      

Princess Emily went inside the closest room, where one could hear what was spoken at the entrance by standing next to the window.      

"Prince Aiden, warm greetings to you," the commoner offered a deep bow, and the small smile on his lips widened upon seeing Princess Emily's maid.      

"Greetings to you, Issac. How have you been, and what's that in your hand?" Prince Aiden eyed the basket.      

"I have been well, My Prince. These are the seasonal fruits that we had collected and stored during the last harvest, and Alora believed that you would very much like them. My family would be humbled if you were to accept this as an apology for the scene that you witnessed earlier." Issac apologised, offering the big basket, and as Anastasia took it from the young man, their fingers briefly brushed against each other.      

Though the young man said it was his sister who had sent the basket, it was only an excuse so that he could come to see the maid and, if possible, talk to her.      

"That is very kind of you, Issac, and there's no need to apologise. I am sure my sister enjoyed her time at the riverbank," Prince Aiden offered him a bright smile. He lowered his voice and asked, "Lily told me that there was some celebration you were talking about," as he was interested in attending it.      

Issac nodded and said, "It will be held in the inn, and there's also a monthly celebration with dance, food, and drinks. Just like the ones that you like."      

"How enticing. I should see what I can do. Even if Lily isn't allowed, I could still go," Prince Aiden grinned before he heard his name being called.      

"Aiden," the voice belonged to Prince Dante.      

"Do let me know more about it later, will you? It was good seeing you, Issac!" Prince Aiden smiled and quickly hurried inside.      

When Anastasia turned around with the basket in her hand, she heard Issac say, "Miss Anna, I would like a moment with you. If you will," he added.      

Even though her dress wasn't wet, Anastasia subconsciously brought the basket closer to her chest. She wondered what this man wanted to talk to her about.      

"Miss Anna, if possible, I would like us to get to know each other better and maybe spend time together when you are free. With Princess Emily's permission, of course," Issac said to Anastasia, catching her off guard. He confessed, "I really like you."      

Anastasia's eyes widened at the young man's confession. She stared at him, noticing him bring his hand up to scratch the back of his neck. He said,      

"Unless you are promised to someone, I hope I still have a chance with you. You are so beautiful and demure by nature."     

He guessed her nature in one meeting? Anastasia asked herself. Though inexperienced with men, she wished to be married one day. But if she married now, she wouldn't be able to escape alone. But then, simultaneously, she was surprised and happy, as this had never happened to her before.     

In the meantime, Aiden met Dante in the corridor, where the latter questioned, "Where is Emily?"      

"Don't be hard on her, Brother Dante. She has been worried since we left the riverbank, and she barely does anything out of line and always follows everything Mother or Father tells her. Your words, too," Prince Aiden defended his sister. "She needs to live a little."      

"I asked where she was. Not for you to explain on her behalf," Dante stared at his brother.      

"She's in there," Prince Aiden pointed at the room, and on seeing his elder brother walk in that direction, he quickly followed. He said, "Brother Dante, don't you think it would be mean t—"     

"Another word from you, and you will spar with me at the camp once we return to the main palace," Dante's words were calm, but his eyes waited for his younger brother to speak, who quickly closed his mouth. He said, "It isn't that I have a problem with her playing in the water. But she needs to know that she can't let her guard down when people are quick to defame others and tarnish their reputation. Especially when one is part of the royal family. If word of this does reach Lady Sophia, do you think Emily will escape being pushed into a marriage she doesn't want, just to 'fix' the rumours?"      

Prince Aiden sighed, wishing they had been born to commoners so they wouldn't have to watch their every move. He couldn't argue with his brother when he was merely looking out for their best interests.      

Upon entering the room where his sister Emily was, Dante caught sight of his sister glued to one of the windows. As he got closer, along with his brother, for a brief moment she turned to look at them, offering them a grin before returning her gaze to the front.      

"What are you doing, Emily?" Dante questioned, and when he got near the window, his eyes fell on Anastasia and the man he had seen back at the river.      

Prince Aiden remarked, "Oh, Issac is still here. I thought he would have left."     

"Shh!" Princess Emily shushed her brothers before whispering, "Issac likes Anna and asked her to attend tomorrow's celebration. How exciting!"     

"Who, Issac?" Prince Aiden asked, confused, while Dante only stared at the two people outside through the transparent glass. "I didn't peg you to be someone who indulges in gossip, Sister."     

"I am only listening, now quiet!" Princess Emily hushed any further questions so that she could hear what was being said.      

Outside, Issac stared at Anastasia as if he couldn't look away from her face, and the attention felt like when she had presented herself as Tasia. He said,      

"The celebration is tomorrow, and you don't need to worry about your clothes because we will be in our usual attire. Nothing fancy. You can consider it to be like a break. So… will you come tomorrow? Of course, you can take your time to decide, and I will seek the princess's approval tomorrow morning."     

A little respite from serving the royal family and spending time in the company of people of her status with a sense of freedom wouldn't be bad, would it? Anastasia thought about it before giving him a nod.      

Issac's face lit up with joy at Anastasia's agreement, and he said, "I am happy to know that you accept, Anna! You don't have to worry about not being able to talk, as it doesn't bother me or any of the others," he assured her. "Then I will see you tomorrow, Anna," he said with a grin before walking away.      

Inside the old palace, Princess Emily said, "Back at the riverbank, Issac couldn't stop staring at her, but I didn't know he liked her so much that he would come all the way here. After all, it was their first meeting."     

"It's a little odd," Prince Aiden murmured. "Aren't you worried that you will have to let her go if she marries him?"      

"Not really," Princess Emily turned to look at her younger brother and said, "I mean, I will be sad, but if she has a chance to have a new family, why would I stop her? Isn't that right, Brother Dante?" She turned to look at her elder brother. "She can go, right?"     

Dante's eyes were still on Anastasia, who watched the man leave.      

'Have husbands that we wouldn't have to share with other women, and children to dote on. A simple life.'     

Even though the woman's presence aroused his senses, keeping his distance from her was better. Though she would never escape from the palace or have the freedom she wanted, that didn't mean she couldn't have a simple and ordinary family.      

Dante looked away from the maid and remarked, "She's your maid, do what you like with her."     

Turning from where he stood, Dante made his way towards the door, and when he pulled it open, he found Anastasia standing in front of him as if she was about to enter the room. He left without sparing a word or casting even a fleeting glance in her direction.      

Stepping inside the room, Anastasia approached where Princess Emily was. Prince Aiden said,      

"You are lucky that I distracted Brother Dante earlier. He came here to scold you, but I took care of it."     

Princess Emily's eyes widened, and she looked at the door and then at her brother before thanking him. "The next time you sneak out of the palace in the middle of the night, I will cover for you. Promise," she said, making a deal with him.      

At night, during dinner, when everyone sat at the table, Princess Emily cleared her throat and addressed her mother, "Mother, there is something I would like to ask."     

"What is it?" Lady Sophia questioned, without looking up from her plate.      

"I was wondering if it is alright for Aiden and I to visit a little celebration in the village tomorrow," just as those words passed Princess Emily's lips, everyone at the table turned to look at her. She added, "Our attendance there will be short, and Brother Dante can join us too, if he's interested."     

"You won't be attending it, Emily," Lady Sophia immediately rejected her daughter's request. She said, "Mr. Wolstonton will be visiting us tomorrow, and I think it would be beneficial if you both converse and get to know each other."     

When Princess Emily had tried to help her maid by playing matchmaker, she hadn't expected her mother to be working on a similar endeavour for her own sake.      

"Yes, Mother," Princess Emily whispered with a bow. How she wished she had the ability to shape-shift like Aiden, knowing her mother would have still refused even if Mr. Wolstonton wasn't visiting them.      

The following day as the evening approached, on the upper floor in Lady Lucretia's room, Dante sat with his mother beside the window, watching her knit. He caught sight of the maid leaving the palace gates.     

Considering how she had done up her hair by braiding it and letting the fringes rest on her forehead and sides of her temples rather than hiding her appearance, it looked like she was excited and looking forward to this evening, Dante thought to himself.      

"What are you looking at?" Lady Lucretia asked, noticing her son staring intensely through the window.      

Dante turned away from the window and said, "Nothing important."      

Though her calm-looking son didn't reveal his thoughts, Lady Lucretia noticed the slight shift in his mood. Her eyes moved to look outside, noticing a young woman walking, who was joined a second later by Prince Aiden.      

"You have spent quite some time with the needlework. You should let your eyes and hands rest now," Dante stated, bringing the lady's attention back to him.      

"Mm," Lady Lucretia watched her son put the knitting materials away before helping her stand. As they walked towards the couch, the lady fell deep in thought before she said, "Dante… tell Aziel to have the cook prepare dinner for me. I think I would like to have it early today and then go to bed."     

Dante became slightly suspicious and asked, "Are you feeling alright?" Checking her vitals once he had helped her sit down, he lightly joked, "Or did you get bored by my company?"     

Lady Lucretia leaned over and placed her head on his shoulder before she smiled and said, "You are the best company I could ask for."      

She held her son's large hand in hers and used her other hand to cover it. His hands used to be so small… and now they had become bigger than hers. Dante had to grow up so fast, and the people around him had stolen his childhood. The small boy, whose existence had been frowned upon, had grown into a remarkable man, commanding respect.      

Lady Lucretia knew that her son spent all his free time with her, as if worried that she would disappear any moment. As sweet as the gesture was, it broke her heart that he had to go through it at all.      

She asked him, "Is there something happening in the village today? I remember them having fairs when I first came here, and they were beautiful. Though your father disliked them." She said, "You should go see if there's one, maybe pick something for me."     

"There's no fair now, but maybe when one is being held. What do you want from the fair?" Dante asked his mother, and he noticed her smile when he looked at her.      

"What do I want?" Lady Lucretia asked with a hum, noticing the sky had started to change colour. She said, "So many things, but the first is to see you happy."     

"I am. With you here," Dante responded, putting his hand on hers. He said, "I will go find Aziel to prepare your dinner," and left the room.      

Alone in the room, Lady Lucretia turned back to look at the window before pondering about the maid she had seen walk outside the palace. She wondered if there was something going on, or if Dante had only stared outside on a whim.      

In front of one of the village inns, lanterns were lit from one end of the street to another, letting people know there was a celebration.      

"Looks like you and I are finally going to a celebration at an inn together," Prince Aiden remarked. He looked relaxed, being Juan and not Prince Aiden.      

"Does that mean that the deal we made is complete?" Anastasia asked him, because he had agreed to it with her when she had asked him to arrange camels for her.     

"Of course not. This one is in the evening, and we aren't in the main city. This is very tame compared to what I mentioned," Prince Aiden explained to her. He then asked, "Won't it be troublesome later if Issac finds out that you 'can' talk and aren't mute like you pretend to be? I mean, after marriage, it would be hard to not be able to talk with anyone, unless you intend to inform him."      

Anastasia's eyes widened, and she quickly said, "I am not getting married to him!"      

"No?" Prince Aiden asked, and she shook her head.      

"I only agreed to go to the celebration, and maybe get to know him better. That is all for now," Anastasia replied, her lips barely moving as they got closer to the inn and saw the people hovering around it. "There are so many people."      

"Village celebrations are like that, Anna. Everyone comes together and has fun. Though sometimes there are a few hiccups here and there," Prince Aiden said, causing Anastasia's eyebrows to lift at his meaning. Her face flinched when she caught sight of two men in a brawl while the other men cheered them on. He said, "Don't worry, all you have to do is stand next to me and I will make sure everything is fine," and they stepped inside the inn.      

After an hour had passed, Anastasia found herself next to Issac, while Prince Aiden was on the other side of the room in the company of two young women, who had their full attention on him. Music was played loudly, making it hard to hear what the young man beside her said.      

When she felt something brush on the side of her hair, Anastasia was startled, and her body jerked.      

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. I couldn't see your eyes before. You have beautiful eyes," Issac said with a nervous smile. He then asked her loudly, "Would you like to dance, Anna?"      

Anastasia shook her head and offered him a small smile. The last time she danced, it had brought a wave of trouble. She then used her hands to tell him to go dance if he wanted to.     

"Oh no! I am fine. I was just asking so that you wouldn't be shy to go up there," Issac smiled at her. "Let me get you something to drink. You must be thirsty."     

Even though Anastasia waved her hands and said she was fine, the young man insisted and left her side. She looked around the inn, filled with villagers who laughed and talked loudly, not caring about the status that the wealthy worried about.      

Anastasia's brown eyes skimmed through the crowd from where she sat, when they suddenly stopped and moved back to find Dante seated at the counter with his legs crossed and a glass of liquor in his hand. He was talking to the man behind the counter, and the air around him was relaxed for once, as if he was one of the commoners.      

When did he arrive? Anastasia asked herself. And though they were in a crowded space, it was as if he could sense her gaze, and his eyes shifted to meet hers.