✍️✍️✍️✍️ Garden Of Poison Chapter 76 - 77 Complete Chapters ✍️✍️✍️✍️



One week's time( Chapter 76)

Music Recommendation: Floki's fire- Trevor Morris    

Upon noticing King Maxwell standing in the corridor, watching her, Anastasia quickly offered him a bow without raising her head. Though she didn't look up at him, she could feel his gaze on her, and soon his shoes clicked against the floor as he walked in the direction where she stood.      

"Raise your head. What are you doing here?" King Maxwell demanded of her, while Anastasia's mind raced.      

When Anastasia raised her head to meet the king's eyes briefly before she lowered it again, she felt his intense stare on her. It wasn't the first time his gaze had fallen upon her, as it had happened in the past, but that was when he was only a prince.      

Anastasia raised her hand towards the window and acted as if she was closing it.      

On the other hand, King Maxwell didn't pay attention to her action, as he realised that her eyes were not green, nor was her skin pale like Marianne's. But at the same time, there was something uncanny about this woman's resemblance to his deceased concubine. He questioned her,      

"Did you see someone passing by here?"      

Anastasia's eyebrows furrowed before she shook her head in response.      

King Maxwell's annoyance grew as the maid remained silent, prompting him to demand, "Speak up using your voice."      

"Your Highness!" It was Mr. Gilbert, who had come to assist him after hearing that the king had summoned him. Noticing the mute maid standing before the king, he asked, "Did she do something to offend you, My King?"    

"The servant seems to think it is beneath her to speak," King Maxwell remarked, and he opened his mouth, ready to punish her by having her sent to the dungeon, when Mr. Gilbert quickly informed him,      

"She cannot speak. She's a mute."      

King Maxwell stared intently at the mute maid, whose eyes remained cast down, and he noticed her long lashes grazing her upper cheeks as she briefly closed her eyes. His eyes then shifted to look at her lips, tracing a downward path. Before his gaze could venture further below, his blue eyes caught sight of the bruise on her neck.      

"If you have finished your work here, go continue with the other errands, Anna," Mr. Gilbert said, dismissing Anastasia from there to avoid her presence disturbing the king.      

Anastasia was more than happy to oblige, and she quickly offered her bows before walking away from them.    

"Is she one of the new additions from Dunkirk's mansion?" King Maxwell asked, looking at Anastasia's back as he realised she was the person he had mistaken for Marianne last night.      

"No, Your Highness," Mr. Gilbert bowed as he answered. "Anna is Princess Emily's maid and has been for quite some time now. She's been here in the palace for years."    

Maxwell wondered why he hadn't noticed the maid before. The maid was attractive, and despite their dissimilar appearance, except for their similar hair, he couldn't shake the feeling of familiarity as if he had seen Marianne once again.    

From what he knew, Marianne had been brought to the palace alone, as she loved him enough to reveal the truth of her past. However, little did Maxwell know that Marianne's love for Anastasia was greater than her love for him when it came to protecting her younger sister from the palace's intrigues and danger.    

He then turned back to look at the empty corridor, wondering if he had imagined things earlier.      

Anastasia's footsteps were quicker than when she had entered these corridors in hopes of seeing her sister. Instead of going to her room, she headed to Princess Emily's quarters, where the princess was taking her afternoon nap. She took a seat on the ground before attempting to drift off to sleep.    

After a few minutes, she began to nod off, struggling to keep her head upright when she felt something touch her, startling her awake, and saw Princess Emily sitting in front of her, holding a blanket.      

"Pardon me, I thought you might be cold and thought you could use a blanket," Princess Emily apologised. "Go back to sleep."      

"That's okay," Anastasia responded, straightening her body that had slid against the wall.      

"The couch is much more comfortable than the ground, Anna. You don't have to worry about someone coming in once you lock the door," Princess Emily assured her, leaving the blanket next to Anastasia and walking towards one of the room's windows.      

"I worry Princess Niyasa will find me sitting on the couch and turn my life into hell," Anastasia nervously smiled at the thought of it. She said, "Even whispering outside the palace is a bad idea, with the way the Prince of the Storm Kingdom heard me speak."    

Princess Emily nodded understandingly. As the princess, the consequences she would bear would be considerably less severe compared to her maid if the royal family found out she wasn't mute. She said,      

"It's because he has very good ears and eyes. Raylen, I mean. But that is understandable considering how he is the Prince of the Storm Kingdom."      

"Meaning?" Anastasia curiously asked her.      

"While the Blackthorns belong to one of the three powerful demons who have ascended to the realm of the living world, the Storm family belongs to the lineage of another demon, much like the Stalan family," Princess Emily explained to Anastasia, and the maid's mouth fell open at this information. The princess then leaned her back against the windowsill and continued, "This is why a truce was established between the three families, as each of the heirs sought to claim dominion over the other kingdoms. Of course, it would be wrong of me to take sides because each kingdom has had its own fair share of bloodshed and death throughout their histories."    

Anastasia had never paid much attention to the political conflicts of the kingdoms; after all, her focus and goal had been very clear.    

"But you are right. It is better for you not to speak outside, and I will do the talking from now on," Princess Emily smiled, not wanting to lose her maid. "How about you teach me to sketch?"      

Anastasia nodded, responding with a smile, "Let me go and get the parchments and the charcoal."      

Princess Emily pushed herself up from her position against the windowsill, saying, "You don't have to settle for parchments when there are canvas boards available in the art room. Come," and they stepped out of the room.      

Upon entering the art room, Anastasia noticed a number of boards resting against the walls or supported by wooden stands. They closed the door before walking around to look for and gather up blank panels they could use.      

Anastasia stood in front of one of the sketches, staring at it with her feet frozen. The drawing depicted Marianne, and she looked down at the name to confirm it.      

"This is a lovely one, isn't it?" Princess Emily remarked as she came to stand next to Anastasia to see what she was looking at. "Most of the art here was made by Maxwell and Aiden. This one was drawn by Maxwell a long time ago. Of course, that was before he was betrothed to Lady Evin."    

It wasn't just that it was a drawing of Marianne but also the place where it was drawn that caught her attention. It resembled the corridor that she had run to earlier, and in the sketch, her sister stood in front of the window, looking outside.      

"He's very good at it. There are other drawings that he sketched that you will find here. Let me see," Princess Emily murmured before turning around when her shoe hit one of the boards lying on the ground.      

Anastasia quickly bent down and lifted the canvas board to find another woman drawn on it. The image depicted a woman with flowing, wavy hair that framed her face as if she were lying down, while her hands were raised and positioned near the sides of her head. Underneath the portrait, the name "Stella" was inscribed.'      

"Stella?" Anastasia whispered with a frown.      

Princess Emily asked her, "Did you know her?"      

Anastasia quickly shook her head and asked, "Who was she?"      

"A former concubine, who is now dead," Princess Emily said, her lips setting into a thin line as if deep in thought. She awkwardly added, "Now that I think about it, there are a lot of dead people in here… I mean, within the art."    

So the man wasn't lying, Anastasia thought to herself. But was it the same person? She heard Princess Emily say, "She was a pretty woman. I can still recall it vividly because of how suddenly things turned bad, and no one dared ever to repeat such an action again."    

Curious, Anastasia asked her, "What happened?"      

"Stella was going to become my father's exclusive concubine, the fifth woman in King William's court," Princess Emily said with a serious expression, "But Maxwell developed a fondness for her, and they engaged in an intimate relationship. When the truth came to light, my father was furious that the woman betrayed him by sleeping with his son, and she was hanged to death for her transgression. No one is allowed to touch what the King has chosen for himself."    

It looked like any woman who fell for King Maxwell always died, Anastasia thought. She asked,      

"But it wasn't her fault, was it?"      

"It was both of their faults," Princess Emily stated before continuing, "Brother Maxwell and Stella were aware of Father's intentions. They also knew the potential consequences that could arise due to their actions. But then, it is also my father's fault. When you are the king, your word is absolute, and no one else's matters."    

Though Princess Emily didn't speak further on the subject, Anastasia could tell these customs didn't sit well with the princess, but she had to follow them as it was how Versailles had functioned for centuries.      

"I am sorry, Princess Emily," Anastasia apologised with a bow.      

"Don't be. You didn't do anything," Princess Emily sighed, her gaze returning to the depictions of the deceased concubines on the canvas boards. She said, "I wish to be angry about these actions, but then I realise that without these events unfolding the way they did, I wouldn't have the family I have now. I would have missed out on the presence of my siblings," she smiled at the end. "Let us look for a blank canvas."    

Anastasia nodded in agreement and turned back to look at her sister's sketch, which looked serene. As they continued looking around, she came across some sketches portraying men and women drawn naked, prompting her to quickly place them face down before moving to the next piece.      

Contemplating how to broach the subject and confirm whether the deceased woman was indeed Gabriel's sister, Anastasia finally stumbled upon a blank canvas. As she picked up some finely-chiselled charcoal, she asked,      

"Princess, if I may speak," Anastasia began, gaining Princess Emily's attention, "I noticed that Lady Sophia is the only one with lighter hair, and all the rest of the women here have dark hair…" Even though it was a question, she left it open-ended.      

"Hm, I never took a note of it, but yes, you are right," Princess Emily nodded, and as they walked out of the room, Anastasia carried the canvas in her arms while keeping her lips sealed. The princess said, "Now that I think about it, I believe she hailed from somewhere on your side of the country. Hawkshead, was it?"      

Anastasia almost lost her grip on the canvas before she adjusted her hold carefully. Princess Emily asked her, "Is it heavy?" To this, she shook her head.      

Once her time with the princess came to an end, as evening approached, Anastasia searched for Gabriel within the palace. She looked for him in the servants' quarters and the back of the kitchen, then ventured to the stables, as well as the garden.      

Stepping back inside the palace, Anastasia met Theresa, and she asked, 'Do you know where Gabriel is?'    

"Who is Gabriel?" Theresa questioned her back.      

'The new man who was brought in from Lord Dunkirk's mansion. Brown hair, grey eyes,' Anastasia moved her hands in haste.      

"Oh, he must be fixing the window. At least, that is what I heard Mr. Gilbert order him to do earlier. Anna? Where are you taking me?" Theresa asked, startled when Anastasia pulled her by her hand.      

"Take me to where he is. I need to ask you to ask him something," Anastasia whispered hurriedly to the older woman as they walked.      

When they finally reached the room where Gabriel was striking a nail with a hammer, Anastasia signed to Theresa, 'Ask him where he is from.'    

Theresa nodded, and she cleared her throat, "Gabriel?"      

"Yes?" The young man turned to look at Theresa, and his eyes then fell on Anastasia, who stood behind the older woman.      

Theresa asked, "Are you from Hawkshead?"      

The question took Gabriel aback, and he frowned with a guarded expression, "Yes, why do you ask?"      

Anastasia let out the breath she had been holding, feeling a mild wave of happiness form in her mind. He was from Hawkshead, from the same village as she was! When Theresa turned to look at her with surprise, Anastasia moved her hands once again,      

'Ask him if he knows my family.'    

Theresa turned back to look at Gabriel and asked, "Do you know the Flores family?"      

"Hugh and Margaret Flores?" Gabriel asked. As if in realisation, his eyes fell back on the maid who stared at him before he said, "You are one of their daughters."      

Anastasia couldn't believe that someone apart from her in this palace was from Hawkshead. She was left speechless, hope glimmering in front of her.      

Theresa, looking equally taken aback by this information, seeking confirmation, asked the man, "Where is Hawkshead located?"      

"Drumfell," Anastasia and Gabriel said at the same time.      

This time, it was Gabriel's turn to feel astonished, and he said, "You can speak… you aren't a mute?" It was because she hadn't said one word— not even last night.      

"I am not," Anastasia replied while staring at him.      

Theresa looked at the two of them staring at each other, and she said, "I will go outside to stand guard so you both can talk," she stepped outside, leaving Anastasia and Gabriel alone. She addressed Gabriel, asking him,      

"How are my parents? Are they okay?"      

It took Gabriel a moment to shake off the feeling as if he had seen a ghost, and he nodded,      

"Mr. and Mrs. Flores are alive and well, but they miss their daughters. Which one are you?"    

"I am their youngest child—"    

"Anastasia," Gabriel remembered the name Prince Dante had called her this morning. "Actually, you are no longer the youngest anymore. When I departed, you had a brother of about this height," he indicated with his hand. "Must be around eight in age."    

A younger brother, Anastasia smiled at the thought. But her smile fell when Gabriel asked her, "Where is your sister? I remember her, with green eyes, I think."      

Anastasia shook her head and said, "She's no more."    

"My condolences," Gabriel murmured.      

Uncertain about the right moment to deliver the news, she said, "Mine too…" For a moment, the man stared at her in question before his face hardened, as if understanding what she said.      

"You found out about her. You know…" Gabriel stated, and Anastasia nodded in silence. He looked defeated, sinking down onto his heels and covering his face with his hands as he tried to gather his emotions. "Damn those fucking royals!" He cursed under his breath, "They fucking killed her! Stole her from us! They steal and use people, doing whatever they want, before throwing them away!"      

Anastasia could relate to Gabriel's pain and emotions that were running through him now because it was something she also carried within herself. After a couple of minutes, the man stood up, the rims of his eyes red. He whispered,      

"I thought when I would find her, the biggest concern would be worrying about how to safely bring her out of the kingdom, persuading her if she were to refuse… I hoped," he pinched the bridge of his nose. "Who killed her?"      

"King William… but he's dead. I am sorry. I didn't mean to deliver you bad news," Anastasia responded, a sense of sorrow welling up inside her.      

Gabriel was at a loss for words because even if he wanted to take revenge on the person who killed his sister, the person had already been murdered. He sighed heavily and said, "It looks like I have nothing more to do here and can now return to my family."    

"To Hawkshead?" Anastasia asked him, and he responded with a nod.      

"I will think about how to break the news to my parents without shattering their hearts," Gabriel uttered, grieving for his dead sister. He said, "I should pack my things and prepare to leave."      

"Tonight?" Anastasia asked, blinking at him as she tried to wrap her mind around his words.    

"Yes, there's no point in me staying here, is there?" Gabriel asked, and then noticed the expression on the woman's face. "What?"      

"Take me with you, please!" Anastasia desperately expressed her need to return to her family. "I want to reunite with my parents too, and my brother. I have been wanting to leave for a very long time."      

Gabriel said, "Okay. Then it would be wise for you to pack whatever you need to leave for—"      

"But not tonight," Anastasia interrupted him, which made him frown. She explained to him, "My sister… She was murdered, and I have been waiting for the murderer to be exposed. I need to know…" her voice trailed.      

"You do understand that the probability of anyone being exposed isn't high? What if a year passes and the murderer remains undiscovered?" Gabriel questioned her, trying to make her understand she would only be wasting her time waiting for something that may never happen, and he didn't want to spend any more time in this palace.      

"I know…" Anastasia whispered, her gaze cast to the ground, and she said, "But if I don't wait for a little longer, I will always carry the feeling that I didn't love her enough and let her go too easily. So please, just a few days."      

Even though days had passed since King William's death, there was no news or sign of the murderer. Anastasia, who now worked in the innermost part of the palace, couldn't help but notice the number of guards had increased, especially around King Maxwell's chambers, as a precautionary measure.      

Anastasia knew that finding the murderer was becoming increasingly challenging with every passing day, but she wanted justice for her sister. She loved her sister enough not to give up on her even after her death. Maybe that is why her sister's ghost was lurking in the shadowy corridors of the palace, as it wasn't at peace, she thought.      

Gabriel gave it some thought before responding, "Okay. I will give you a week, Anastasia. After that, I will depart, and you can decide whether to accompany me or remain here."      


Don't provoke the demon! (Chapter 77)

Music Recommendation: Destiny's Path- John Williams    

"I hope that they find the person who murdered your sister," Gabriel tried to comfort the woman, as he had lost his own opportunity for justice. "Not so that you can leave, but so that you see the person being held accountable."    

Anastasia nodded with a small smile and said, "I hope so too. I don't know what happened that day. She was killed along with King William."      

Hearing the name brought a sour look to Gabriel's face, and he said,      

"So it was the same person who killed the king and your sister." Anastasia nodded. "I guess I can curse the person for killing your sister and for ending the king's life, when I would have preferred to do it myself," he admitted, driven by a desire for revenge, but they both knew the high likelihood of being caught if they took matters into their own hands. "To think that the murderer might be residing in this very palace without worry," he muttered. He asked her, "Why do you choose not to speak when you have the ability to?"      

"It was due to specific circumstances that initially led to me not speaking. You cannot tell anyone about it, Gabriel. Only Theresa knows, and if other servants learn about—"    

"I understand. I won't bring you trouble," Gabriel agreed. "As people from the same village and the same country, I shall protect your secret."      

Anastasia offered him a bow, "Thank you so much."      

"The palace life has conditioned you, too," Gabriel remarked, and Anastasia looked up to meet his grey eyes. He said, "You don't have to keep up with formalities. In the place we are from, people don't bow to each other."    

"How is Hawkshead?" Anastasia asked with great interest and excitement.      

Gabriel noticed the faint smile on the woman's lips, making her seem prettier, as she often wore a blank expression while walking through the palace corridors. He replied,      

"It is still the same, beautiful with trees and flowers, a river flowing through the forest and under the bridge," he smiled as he thought about it. "Has it been three years since I left? I think so. Some of them still miss their children, while others have moved on from the tragedy that took place eight years ago."    

"What is my brother's name?" Anastasia asked, wanting to know more. "How is he?"      

"His name is Tomas. He's a bright boy. He has taken after your mother and, in some ways, resembles your late sister," Gabriel answered, sparking Anastasia's excitement and impatience to meet her little brother.      

Only if Mary was here, Anastasia thought to herself. Expressing her gratitude, she said, "Thank you for not giving up on searching for your sister. Knowing that my parents and brother are still there brings me great comfort." The need to reunite with them grew stronger than ever before.      

"I wasn't expecting you to be from the same village, but it is reassuring to have an ally here," Gabriel offered her a smile and said, "I should get back to work before Mr. Gilbert questions me."      

Anastasia nodded with a smile and said, "Thank you once again. I must go attend to Princess Emily now."      

But when Anastasia turned to leave the room, Gabriel, who was staring at her, asked,      

"Have you ever entertained the thought of poisoning the king and his family as retribution for causing you heartache?"      

Anastasia froze in her footsteps, and she slowly turned back to face Gabriel. She said,      

"My anger is directed towards the people who ordered us to be stolen from our family, and specifically the person who took my sister's life. But I'm not angry enough to kill innocent people." She said, "I know you are angry too, but your feelings are directed at the wrong targets."      

"The people in this place happily conform to the established order because they feel it is their right and that they are superior to us," Gabriel pointed out, and as much as Anastasia wanted to agree, she couldn't. He said, "Of course, I don't mean to poison them because I know there will be severe consequences to bear."      

Anastasia said to him, "Individuals are not born into the royal family by choice."    

"What about the person who hurt you?" Gabriel questioned her. For a moment, Anastasia wondered if it was Marianne's murderer he was talking about but then noticed that his eyes were not looking back at hers, but he was staring at her neck.      

"Anna, I hear Mr. Gilbert's voice! We should leave!" Theresa urgently exclaimed, stepping inside the room, and unable to speak another word, the two women exited the room and hurried away down the corridor.      

The following day, while Anastasia accompanied Princess Emily in the front corridors of the palace, she subconsciously wore a smile on her lips, which the princess noticed.      

Anastasia was consumed with thoughts of the day when she would be gazing at the palace as she left it behind. It seemed like Gabriel was well-versed in moving stealthily from one place to another without getting caught. Now she wouldn't have to worry about being stuck or captured, as he would be there to guide her and take her safely to her family.      

"Did something good happen, Anna? Your mood seems to have improved quite a lot," Princess Emily turned to look at Anastasia, who quickly fixed the expression on her face.      

"The weather is back to being bright, and everything appears peaceful for now, doesn't it?" Princess Emily sighed, her voice filled with contentment, and Anastasia nodded in silence, not uttering a word. The princess leaned towards the maid and whispered,      

"Did you know that some of the maids have been hanging around the garden for longer than necessary?"      

Anastasia raised her eyebrows in question.      

"Seems that the men and the women Lord Dunkirk sent are all quite the lookers," Princess Emily remarked as they continued to walk along the corridor before halting their footsteps.      

Ahead of them, Anastasia noticed two maids peeking out from the far end of the corridor, giggling and murmuring something amongst themselves while casting glances towards the garden.      

"There is the reason," Princess Emily said, turning her head, and Anastasia followed the princess's line of sight.    

Anastasia's eyes fell on Gabriel and another man who were working in the outer garden. Compared to the other servants, they were quite attractive.      

Princess Emily observed, "It looks like Lord Dunkirk wanted our maids to not attend to their daily duties," and a small chuckle escaped her lips. "The women are far more beautiful than any we had seen in Versailles until now, whether in the concubines' quarters or the Paradise Tower," she continued to speak softly, "One of them was sent to Maxwell's chamber last night, but nothing happened because he sent her away. Grandmother thinks that he's now following in Brother Dante's footsteps."    

While they stood at the window, Gabriel seemed to catch sight of them, and he offered a deep bow to the princess, who returned it with a smile.      

Princess Emily noticed the young male servant look at Anastasia and offer her a smile, and from the corner of her eyes, she caught her maid smiling back at him. Hm? Was this the reason she was happy? Princess Emily asked herself.    

"Anna," Princess Emily began, gaining Anastasia's attention. She asked, "Can you tell the gardener I am looking for a beautiful little rose?"      

Anastasia nodded and stepped into the garden while Princess Emily watched them from the window. Reaching near where Gabriel stood, she didn't speak but let him know that she was looking for a rose.      

"What are you looking at the garden for, Lily?" It was Princess Niyasa, who walked over with her maid following her. She had a crooked smile on her lips as she walked towards her older sister, and she noticed the maid missing from her sister's side.      

"At the bees and the flowers, under the lovely sun," Princess Emily replied with a smile.      

"Where is your mute maid?" Princess Niyasa questioned.      

"She went to fetch me a flower of my liking," Princess Emily replied, her gaze falling back to where her maid and the gardener stood. When Princess Niyasa followed her sister's line of sight, she grimaced.      

"Ugh, I don't even know what they see in that lowly man. He's a gardener, for heaven's sake," Princess Niyasa huffed, showing not a speck of interest in where the maids were preoccupied with ogling. "Please tell me you don't find him attractive," she added, looking repulsed by the idea.      

"I think he's a fairly attractive man," Princess Emily remarked without considering his status.      

"Who is?"      

Startled by the voice behind her, Princess Niyasa gasped in surprise and glared at Prince Aiden, who had just finished attending a court meeting. Standing next to him was Prince Dante.      

"Lily finds the gardener to be handsome. Do you feel the same, Aiden?" Princess Niyasa subtly tattle-taled while Princess Emily suddenly turned serious in the presence of their oldest brother.      

Dante didn't care about the servants' attractiveness and was about to leave the corridor when his brother joked, "Is Anna getting some tips on gardening?"    

"I was looking for a flower and asked her to fetch it for me," Princess Emily smiled at her younger brother, who gave her a suspicious look. It seemed that his sister wasn't far behind their grandmother when it came to matchmaking, Aiden thought in his mind.      

While his siblings were busy discussing the gardener's appearance, Dante's eyes fell on Anastasia, who followed the man around the garden. He watched the gardener cut the stem of a flower before offering it to her, and knowing exactly what would happen next, clenched his jaw, his expression barely changing.    

In the garden, Gabriel said, "Here you go, a beautiful rose for the princess, just as you asked."      

As Anastasia reached for the stem of the rose, her hand inadvertently brushed against a thorn, and she flinched. "You should be careful with roses. The thorns are sharper than the blade itself," Gabriel explained to her. He said, "As beautiful as the rose is, the thorns serve to keep the rose safe. To protect it from the ones that might cause it harm. Would you like to have one for yourself?" He asked her, and Anastasia smiled, shaking her head in response. "Alright then. I will remove the thorns so it doesn't injure the princess."      

Taking the rose with her, Anastasia returned to where Princess Emily stood. But with her stood the other royal siblings, which included Prince Dante. She offered them a bow, and Princess Niyasa walked away from there as if she was bored.      

"Such a pretty rose," Princess Emily commented, smiling down at the flower. She said, "You should pin it in your hair."    

Anastasia's eyes widened because this flower was for the princess and not for her. She shook her head in refusal. Even without looking directly at Dante, she could feel his gaze.      

Princess Emily took the rose, and in the next second, the rose found its place nestled in Anastasia's neatly bunned hair. She remarked, "Lovely, isn't it?"      

Anastasia never had the liberty or chance to wear flowers in her hair. She raised her hand to touch the rose before shyly smiling at Princess Emily's remark. When her eyes moved to look at Dante, he only stared at her without saying a word.      

"Prince Dante," one of the ministers called as he emerged from the royal courtroom and stated, "The duel will be held in one hour from now."      

Dante gave a short nod of acknowledgement, and the minister scurried away from there.      

"What duel?" Princess Emily asked, her eyes moving from one brother to another.      

"The King ordered a duel when we were discussing the military and the base camp preparation," Prince Aiden began.      

"What?" Princess Emily frowned, even though she understood what was being said.      

Dante said, "I shall go change and get prepared."      

Anastasia's eyebrows drew together as she watched the first prince leave their side. With them being alone in the corridor and unable to stay quiet, she asked in a low voice,      

"I thought they already duelled each other many days ago."      

Prince Aiden nodded, "But this is different. Brother Dante requested that Lady Lucretia be brought back here from the old palace and… Maxwell said he would think about it after the duel."      

"That means Lady Lucretia will come back, right?" Anastasia asked, because from what she had seen during their last sword fight, King Maxwell was the one who had lost.      

"No," Princess Emily whispered, with worry lacing her voice. "This has nothing to do with Lady Lucretia coming back." She looked around the corridor to ensure that no one was around before saying, "Everybody knows that defeating the king of your kingdom is an act of disrespect towards the crown. Because if you do, it will cost you your head."      

Prince Aiden nodded in agreement and added to his sister's words by saying,      

"Lily is right. Brother Dante isn't allowed to defeat the king. It is a duel that already has a fixed winner. Brother Maxwell is trying to show Brother Dante his place, stripping away his dignity and the respect he has earned until now. Revenge for how he lost the previous duel," he frowned.      

Anastasia turned to look in the direction Prince Dante had walked away, while the siblings continued to discuss the matter in hushed voices.      

Wanting to witness the duel, a carriage was prepared to transport the royal siblings and Queen Maya to the base camp of Versailles. As they were ready to depart, Princess Emily caught sight of the Mother Queen walking past the entrance and asked her,      

"Grandmother, won't you be joining us?"      

The Mother Queen raised her hand in dismissal and stated, "I already know who is the better fighter. There is no need for me to witness it once more." With that, she confidently strolled back into the palace as if the duel were an ordinary occurrence.      

Anastasia studied the carriage, which she had never seen before, its interior appearing spacious, with the horses harnessed in the front. She heard Princess Emily wave at her, calling,      

"Hurry, Anna." And once she was inside, the door was closed. Soon the horses began to move, pulling the carriage forward.      

When they reached the base, they climbed out of the carriage and hurried towards the circular arena, where the two oldest sons of the Blackthorn family stood facing each other with their swords out of their scabbards. The Vizier announced,      

"A sword duel between King Maxwell and Prince Dante will now begin!"    

Anastasia observed that both the men had removed their shirts, wrapping a thick cloth around their waists and securing their black trousers. While King Maxwell's body was smooth without a single mark on his skin, Prince Dante bore scars across his front and back.      

Watching the two men with their swords raised, circling each other as they weighed the other's movements, Anastasia wondered if the duel would be a short one, considering it was already a fixed match.      

Not a moment later, both their swords clashed, producing a shower of sparks with every clash and motion of the blades against each other.      

"It is a three-strike duel," Princess Emily whispered next to Anastasia. "Whoever leaves three prominent marks on their opponent wins. That means Brother Dante gets to make one strike and pass the other two."    

The two men fought with their swords, dodging and attacking the other while everyone watched them. It wasn't a match to determine who would win, but how the match would be handled to result in the least amount of injuries.      

Right now, Dante was defending against an attack by Maxwell, who swung his blade with all his might. Though the first prince successfully deflected it, Maxwell used his foot to kick his brother and pierce his sword near Dante's shoulder blade.      

"King Maxwell seems to be doing a lot better than the last time, isn't he?" One of the men murmured quietly. "He's reaching the highest peak of his Crux."      

"Indeed, the precision of his sword is as good as Prince Dante's," another man agreed with a nod.      

Upon hearing this, Queen Maya internally smiled in satisfaction as she and her son were dispelling any doubts that any person in the kingdom could raise. Her son was going to secure the crown, and after a month had passed, they would change the edicts such that no one would ever dare to take the crown away by challenging their authority. The corner of her lips curled up as she watched the duel and heard the sound of the metal blades clashing against each other.      

And while the fight took place at the base, the Mother Queen tiptoed around and went to meet the sleeping beauty of the palace. Reaching the front of the room, the guards informed her,      

"Mother Queen, we have been ordered to let the lady rest."      

"I believe that is what she has been doing for the last few days. I just want to make sure she is doing all right, and her health is improving," the old woman glared at the guards, who stubbornly refused to let her in. She ordered, "I command you to step away, and these are the words from the Queen of this palace. My status is the same as your Queen Maya's, so move, or I will have you hung upside down on a branch of a tree while dipping your head in a pot of boiling oil," she smiled at them.      

The guards looked at each other before one said, "I will accompany you, Mother Queen."      

"Do whatever you want, just don't get in my way," the Mother Queen said.      

Once the door was pushed open, she finally stepped inside to see the woman sleeping on the bed. She walked towards the woman before sitting next to her and touching her forehead. She turned to the maid who was watching over the young woman and glared,      

"Get a glass of water. Her body is burning up."      

"Yes, Mother Queen!" The maid quickly turned to pour a glass of water.      

Once it was brought to her, the Mother Queen made Lady Evin drink the water by tilting her head and pouring it into her mouth. Whilst she did this, her hand supporting the head pinched the young woman's ear and drew back. The Mother Queen pretended to scratch her cheek while her tongue licked the blood off her finger.      

The Mother Queen handed the glass to the maid and then fixed Lady Evin's hair to cover the young woman's scratch before she said,      

"I cannot wait for you to wake up. I am looking forward to my grandchildren." She then ordered the maid, "Take good care of her."      

"Yes, Mother Queen," the maid bowed, watching the old woman walk away.      

Once the Mother Queen was out of the room, she said, "These are the times when my ability comes in handy. My suspicion was right. It isn't my antidote but something to do with the girl." There was something else in her blood, which was why her condition hadn't improved. Her eyes narrowed. "Damn it, where is Aziel when I need him?" she cursed while walking away.      

Back in the base camp, where most of the men and the royal siblings were gathered around the circle, they watched Dante skillfully dodge Maxwell's sword while the younger man's face contorted with anger, fueled by his desire to inflict another wound upon his older brother's flesh.      

Dante didn't use any tricks and instead dragged the duel out to make it seem that Maxwell was exerting genuine effort. This way, his brother's ego and pride would be satisfied enough to rethink his decision regarding his mother, who needed him by her side. This time, a second wound was inflicted upon his upper arm, and he felt the flesh being ripped from inside.      

"A second strike with the sword! King Maxwell has grown stronger!" Said one of the young boys, who had only recently enlisted in the camp.      

"Does this mean King Maxwell has won?!" Asked another young boy in excitement. "Hail, King Maxwell! Long live King Maxwell!"      

Anastasia watched blood dripping down Dante's arm and shoulder blade. The unfairness of the situation unsettled her, but one couldn't go against the king, not even those who shared his blood.      

While Dante kept a composed expression with only his breath slightly ragged, Maxwell raised his sword to hush the people around and said,      

"Not so soon, my people." He looked around at everyone and said, "For the next round, we should engage in combat by giving a fair chance to my brother as he wasn't blessed with his Crux."      

Maxwell stared at his brother, who stared right back at him before offering a bow of acceptance for a third round.      

Maxwell was the second child of his father, but he had never been his favourite, as Dante took that away. Even with his Crux, he could tell by the look in his father's eyes that he was just another son, as the crown prince position was taken by Aiden, who was the son born through wedlock.      

Even his mother had been denied the rightful recognition and had to fight for her place within the concubines' quarters. The wound had formed since he was young. But finally, at long last, his reign had arrived, and his word would be obeyed.      

Princess Emily asked her brother, "Why another match? It would be two against one."      

"I don't know…" Prince Aiden pursed his lips as it was becoming demeaning to watch.      

Anastasia heard King Maxwell order the Vizier, "Zion, we will be starting the third round."      

"As you wish, Your Highness," the Vizier bowed.      

As the two brothers took their stance, King Maxwell's eyes moved across the crowd to meet his mother's eyes. But then his eyes fell on the maid standing behind his first sister.      

"BEGIN!" The Vizier shouted, and their swords clashed again, this time much more intensely than the previous two rounds.      

Anastasia tried to keep up by following their hands, but they moved too fast, and her ears filled with the gasps of the people around her and the metals clashing against each other. It was probably the longest round they had fought before King Maxwell's blade stabbed into the spot where he had earlier wounded Prince Dante.      

"King Maxwell has won all three rounds!" The Vizier announced, and the young boys cheered while the older men of the camp quietly clapped their hands, as they knew the truth.      

  Maxwell smiled at his mother, who looked proud, and he turned to Dante. He said,      

"You should dress those wounds, Brother."      

When Maxwell was about to leave, Dante asked, "Can my mother now return to the palace?"      

Maxwell stared at Dante and smiled. "You lost all three rounds on purpose. To let them know that you are willingly letting me win? Things will remain unchanged."      

Anastasia couldn't hear what King Maxwell and Prince Dante were speaking, but she noticed the latter's face harden before a blank expression fell on his face. She heard Princess Emily nudge her brother, "Go to Brother Dante, Aiden. We will be returning to the palace first."      

In the evening, in the royal palace, after hearing that the king had not kept his word, the Mother Queen walked through the corridors with heavy yet quick footsteps. She wore a scowl on her face and signalled the guards standing at one of the doors to open it.      

"Mother Queen, what a pleasant surprise for you to come see me," Queen Maya commented with a smile, while getting up from her seat.      

"Good evening, Grandmother," Princess Niyasa offered a bow, as she was in a good mood like her mother.      

"Niyasa dear, why don't you step out of the room, as I have something private to talk about with your mother," the Mother Queen stated before she added, "I am not asking."      

Queen Maya gave a nod to her daughter, who quietly glared at the older woman before she slipped out of the room and the doors shut behind her. The Mother Queen demanded,      

"What do you think you are doing?"      

"Careful with your tone, Mother Queen. You might have got the seal, but I am still the king's mother," Queen Maya advised with a smile. "What has got you upset? I heard you visited Evin, how very unlike you."    

The Mother Queen didn't care about the sleeping woman, and she questioned,      

"What were you thinking having Dante and the king duel each other with stakes you never meant to keep? We all know you won't let Lucretia back in here, because she shone brighter than you. But there is no need to unnecessarily bait the boy. It would be better to just bring her back here, as she might be in her last few days."    

Queen Maya scoffed at the older woman's words and said, "I didn't do anything. Didn't you mention something about the circle of life? I was sitting here when the court meeting took place."      

"There is no need to act dumb," the Mother Queen shot back, upset after hearing from Aiden about what had happened. She then said, "You are playing with fire, Queen Maya. You don't want to be burnt by it, because the way I see it, you are stoking it. The more you stoke it, the worse your future will be."      

"Oh my, I have always enjoyed your threats, Mother Queen," Queen Maya laughed before her face turned serious. She said, "But your threats don't work on me."    

"Don't tell me I didn't warn you," the Mother Queen said, her eyes blazing in anger before she turned around and left the room. She muttered, "These useless people are going to hasten the process, which I have handled with care for the right time. You! Tell Aziel he needs to meet with me!" she shouted at the guard.      

"Yes, milady!"      

The Mother Queen frowned. She feared that the demon would wake up before the soulmate would appear. She continued to mutter to herself, "This is not good. If the soulmate is there, at least she will be able to balance the demon's chaos."    

No person was born to be bad, the Mother Queen thought to herself. But circumstances and situations could blacken one's heart and push the person over the edge, and it would be hard to turn around the situation.