✍️✍️✍️✍️ Garden Of Poison Chapter 87 - 90 Complete Chapter ✍️✍️✍️✍️



Mother Queen's dangerous method (Chapter 87)

The Mother Queen was both floored and appalled, knowing the woman she thought to have Dante wed was right under her nose all this time! Her glare shifted from the newly-made courtesan to look at her granddaughter.      
"I will explain everything to you," Princess Emily said tensely. She watched her grandmother rise from her seat and begin to walk, and she followed right behind her.      

Stepping out of the Hall of Mirrors, the Mother Queen and Princess Emily made their way silently into the garden, with the latter following the older woman until they came to a spot where no one could see them or hear them speak.      

"Speak," the Mother Queen ordered once she faced her granddaughter.      

Emily nodded and began, "On the day we were returning from the old palace, I found out that Anna could speak, and the day after that she was Tasia. It wasn't m—"    

"I'm talking about what you meant when you said she is important to Dante. I don't want you spinning me in circles anymore, Emily," the Mother Queen wore a shrewd look on her face that showed she wouldn't stand being lied to anymore. "Tell me clearly."    

"I think Brother Dante likes Anna. He treats her with care, and I say this because I saw him stroke her head. It was subtle, but I know what I saw. Yesterday, he didn't let Aiden touch her," Emily came clean with what she had observed. She said, "Even now, he sat with Mr. Langford when the man was talking to Anna."    

"That is right," the Mother Queen affirmed thoughtfully. "What else do you know?"    

Emily raked through her mind before she said, "Anna has entered his room before, which was how the rumours began, but nothing happened from what she told me. She just didn't want people realising that she was Tasia."    

The Mother Queen questioned if this was the woman who would save her grandson. The one. The thought that she had identified the woman at first glance made her smile before a chuckle escaped from her lips, and she quickly fixed her expression to a serious one. In the meantime, Emily wondered if her grandmother was losing her mind.      

If this woman was Dante's destined one, then there was one way to confirm it, the Mother Queen thought.      

"Grandmother?" Emily called her grandmother, who seemed to be lost in thought. The older woman was standing with her face turned away as if she was still angry at her. She said, "Please don't punish her."    

"That will depend on whether Dante has really taken an interest in this woman," the Mother Queen replied, and she said, "I still cannot see your face for the lies you have told me. Is there anything else being hidden from me that I need to know?"      

When Emily failed to respond, the Mother Queen realised there was more for her to hear, and she turned and said, "Out with it, child!"      

"It isn't about Brother Dante or Anna. It is about the seal. Yesterday, when I was placing the seal on the royal edict to free Anna and the other servants, I used it on another parchment… for future use," Emily's voice trailed.    

"And where is this parchment with my seal on it?" the Mother Queen asked, raising her eyebrows.      

"Safe in my room. Between the pages of a book," Emily answered, seeing her grandmother stare at her.    

"This is why you are my favourite granddaughter," the Mother Queen laughed and said, "This is good. We cannot undo what Maxwell has ordered, but we can use it to our advantage. If Dante really likes this girl, and she passes a little test of mine, then I shall have the parchment sent to the Elder Ministers so that she can become only his woman and is left untouched by the rest."    

Emily could finally breathe at her grandmother's words, and she smiled. She confessed, "Finally some good news after all the bad." She then asked, "Is the test really necessary? I mean to say, if Brother Dante likes her, then that should be good enough, right?" After all, he had never paid attention to any woman before. Not that she knew of, at least.      

"The test is the most important one, which will reveal if she's fit to stay by Dante's side," the Mother Queen's mood had elevated, and her angry expression from earlier was replaced with a pleasant one. But people who knew her well could tell that the older woman was up to no good.      

"If I may ask, Grandmother, how do you plan to test her?" Emily asked out of curiosity.      

"That's very simple," the Mother Queen replied, while looking at the sky that had turned dark. She said, "She shall be pricked by the Blackthorn rose, and if she survives, she passes the test."      

"…" Emily should have known that her grandmother was up to no good! She reminded her grandmother, "Lady Evin fell unconscious after being pricked by the plant. Why do you want Anna dead? If Brother Dante finds out about this, he will disown both of us!" Neither did she want harm to befall Anastasia because of her grandmother's reckless whims.      

The Mother Queen waved her hand as if there was nothing to worry about. She said,      

"Let us hope that she survives then. Now you have a new task, to bring her to the corridor near the forbidden side of the palace when it is time for everyone to go to sleep. I will be waiting." After a pause, she asked, "And what is with this Tasia Flores name?"      

"That's Ana-s-tasia… Grandmother," Emily explained, noticing that her grandmother was becoming displeased again because her intelligence had been questioned.      

When it was night, where most people were about to retire to their rooms and the corridors were still busy, Emily made her way to the Paradise Tower and arrived at the entrance.      

"Princess Emily, greetings to you!" The courtesans were quick to greet her and come to her with smiles.      

"I would like to talk with my former maid. Anna," Emily said, her eyes searching through the room, which was when one of the courtesans informed her,      

"She's not here. Madame Minerva said one of the men of the royal court took interest in her and requested her to attend him tonight."    


What will it be? (Chapter 88)

Anastasia's hands shook as she stood in front of a door, with Madame Minerva standing beside her. She said,      
"I thought I needed to be trained before I would be expected to service anyone." She was sure she would get at least a few days of respite before being pushed into servicing men. She offered an excuse, "The wounds on my back haven't healed—"    

"For someone who didn't speak, you certainly have much to say," Madame Minerva interrupted her, their voices low. She said, "Normally this doesn't happen. But Mr. Langston holds a prominent position in the court and has been instrumental in expediting orders through the Elder ministers. I mentioned that you were inexperienced, but he still wants you. So it seems you may have to learn the ropes quickly. The first time is scary, but you will get used to it."    

Anastasia's body refused to open the door and step inside, where the sleazy man waited for her. In a state of panic, she vehemently protested,      

"I am not ready for this. I want to go back to my room!"    

However, she managed to take only a single step back before Madame Minerva grabbed her arm in an iron grip that made her wince in pain. The older woman glared down at her,      

"How dare you refuse to service him when it is your job now? Be grateful that you are here instead of scrubbing footprints from the floor, or else it won't be long before your head hangs on the wall, mounted on a spear."    

Anastasia despised terms such as courtesan and concubine, which fueled deep-seated hatred within her towards the woman standing before her and the inhabitants of the palace. She gritted her teeth and said,      

"Then I would rather choose death than stoop so low." She knew she was digging her grave by saying this, but she was left in a tight spot. Whichever option she chose, it wasn't one she wanted, and no one understood her predicament.      

Madame Minerva let out an exasperated sigh before looking up and down the new courtesan. Her lips twisted in displeasure, and she stated, "It looks like the lashes you received yesterday weren't sufficient. King Maxwell was kind enough to elevate your position, as was Queen Maya, and instead of being thankful, you rebel. I have seen enough individuals like you in my time, and I have remedied their defiance. I cannot wait to rectify your behaviour."    

Suddenly the door before them opened, and Mr. Langston smiled, looking at the young courtesan. He commented, "I thought I heard some voices."      

Madame Minerva's displeased face quickly transitioned into a pleased one as she offered a bright smile to the man. She said,      

"It is Anna's first time, and she is a little worried. I told her that you would take good care of her." At the same time, a servant arrived carrying a tray with a jug of rose and lemon sherbet, along with a glass placed beside it. The older woman took hold of the tray and shoved it towards Anastasia. "I shall leave now, Mr. Langston. I hope you have a wonderful night," she offered a deep bow, leaving the corridor with the servant.      

"Pour the juice for me. I am thirsty," Mr. Langston ordered Anastasia.    

When she stepped inside the room, pouring the juice into the glass, she heard the door lock behind her. Offering the glass to him, she noticed him staring at her as he drank the entire glass and gave it back to her. He then said,      

"You should drink some too. You will feel more relaxed."    

"Thank you, Mr. Langston, but I've already drunk some and am full," Anastasia lied. Her stomach churned, and she feared that drinking or eating anything would lead to her throwing up. But then, on second thought, she wondered if that wasn't a bad idea.      

Anastasia tried to stay three steps away from Mr. Langston, but the man attempted to close the gap with a smile. He said, "You have beautiful skin, Anna." Her hand moved behind her to get an object to be used to hit his head or face to stop him from advancing any further. He continued, "Makes me… makes me want to… run. Ugh—I feel like my head is—" Suddenly, the man collapsed.      

Her eyes widened on seeing the man lying motionless on the ground, and apprehensively, she called out, "M—Mr. Langston?" But the man didn't move.      

"You can leave him be."      

Anastasia's eyes snapped to the room's open window, and she noticed Prince Dante sitting on the sill, his eyes on the man sprawled on the floor. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she asked,      

"How did you get in here?" A few seconds ago, he wasn't in the room.      

Dante climbed down from the window before making his way to where Anastasia stood. He noticed the anxiousness in her eyes running wild. He brought his hand to her face, tucking a piece of her hair behind her ear. He stated,      

"I told you that no man would defile you, didn't I?" His fingers gently brushed down her neck from the back of her ear. As brave as she tried to look, it was obvious that she was frightened at the thought of what could have happened. "The thought of anyone touching you makes my blood boil, even if it's a woman."    

Anastasia bowed deeply and said, "Thank you, Prince Dante… For keeping your word to me."      

Dante stared at her, his midnight eyes piercing her gaze. and he said, "As you have refused to be my concubine, a simple thank you won't suffice, Anastasia."    

Anastasia's hands tightened into fists, and she asked, "What do you want?"    

"You," Dante's answer rolled out of his mouth as he watched her. "Every part of you. Body, soul, and mind."    

"Prince Dante—"    

"Dante. Try it," Dante pushed her to follow his lead.      

His mood had been darkening with each hour that passed since yesterday. Especially after finding out that his grandmother had lost her second seal, as it was nowhere in her room, making things difficult for him. Without the seal, even if Anastasia now agreed to become his concubine, the order that would need to be passed to make it happen would have to go through the people who would reject it.      

He could steal her away from here and take his mother along with them, but his rash actions would cost the lives of his grandmother, Emily, and the others. Seeing Anastasia safe, Dante's mood felt more at ease.      

"Go on," Dante coaxed her, his voice sweeter than a minute ago.      

Anastasia's lips quivered when they parted, and she called his name, "…Dante."    

"Good girl," Dante praised her with a pleased expression on his face. He then said, "So, which one will it be? An experience for the body or binding of the soul? Or perhaps the mind, so that I occupy it all."    

"Mr. Langston will hear us if he wakes up." Anastasia quickly deflected Dante's words.      

"He won't wake up," Dante stated, unbothered about the man, leaving Anastasia to suspect that he had done something to him. He calmly explained, "I told him that you were unavailable, but he seemed to have a hard time understanding it. So I poisoned him."    

Anastasia was staring at Mr. Langston while Dante spoke, and her eyes slowly moved to look at him. She stuttered, "You—You killed him?"      

"He didn't leave me much choice, and it was a good time to discard him so that it breaks off communication between the king and the ministers, even if it's only for a day," Dante's words sounded nonchalant. It made Anastasia question whether the persona the first prince presented to others truly reflected who he was or if there was a side to him that people were unaware of.      

Was he really someone who followed the rules of the palace? Anastasia questioned herself.      

Worried, Anastasia asked him, "Won't people question how he died?"      

"There will be questions only if the body is found, hm?" Dante looked away from the dead man, whom Anastasia had thought was merely unconscious. He noticed she was bothered by the dead body; a look of disbelief was etched across her face. He said, "No one will come to disturb you, so stay here until I return. Can you do that?"      

Anastasia nodded and watched Dante throw bedsheets over the dead man before wrapping them around him and boldly carrying the body out of the room as if he wouldn't be caught. She waited in the room for several minutes, glancing at the door every now and then.      

When Dante returned, Anastasia asked him, "Didn't anyone see you carrying the man?"      

"No," Dante replied, and this made Anastasia curious. She was sure that even though there were no guards in the corridors near this room, there were a few in the other corridors, and there was no way the prince would have gone unnoticed.      

"Where did you put him?" Anastasia asked, worried.      

"Tucked away somewhere, safe and sound. If someone asks you, you tell them that you ate and drank and fell asleep. And nothing happened." Dante locked the door and stepped further inside the room. "You don't know what happened to him after you fell asleep. Do you understand?"      

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"Yes," she replied. She saw him walk towards the table and pick up an apple from the basket. He then turned to ask her,      

"Did you eat?"      

Anastasia shook her head and replied, "I am not hungry." She hadn't eaten anything since this afternoon.      

Suddenly Dante tossed the fruit for her to catch, and he said, "Eat it." He also chose one for himself, and picking up a knife, he came to sit on the edge of the bed. When he noticed she hadn't taken a bite yet, he asked her, "Do you want me to feed you?"    

Anastasia quickly brought the apple to her mouth and took a bite.      

And as she chewed, she saw Dante cut the fruit into thin slices before putting it in his mouth. He motioned his head towards the empty space beside him, indicating for her to join him. As he sat in the middle of the bed, she took the side closest to her and continued to eat the apple in her hand.      

After a few bites, Anastasia pulled the apple away from her mouth and asked, "Prince Dante… how did you poison him?" But Dante was busy cutting his apple and eating it, paying no attention to her. "Dante," she uttered his name while dropping his title, and he turned to look at her.    

"You served it to him yourself," Dante replied, and Anastasia noticed his jaw move as he chewed. "The sherbet."    

"I almost drank it and would have died!" Anastasia was left flabbergasted as she gawked at him.      

"I had the antidote for it. I would have brought you back. I did promise to keep you with me," Dante said confidently, watching the expression on her face change like the colours of the sky. He added, "You didn't touch anything at the Hall of Mirrors. I guessed you lacked an appetite because of the stress you were feeling earlier."      

So he had noticed it, despite the other courtesans dancing throughout the entire evening. She had been a nervous wreck, but she was finally able to breathe, even though a man was dead because of her. She was glad the prince seemed to have forgotten his earlier talk about his desires. She said,      

"I was thinking about how I should view my current position as an opportunity."    

Dante, who was in the middle of chewing, paused, and turned his gaze towards her, his eyes slightly narrowed in response to her words. Anastasia hastily clarified,      

"I mean, not to learn to pleasure men but to see if I can find any answers regarding my sister's death." After all, she had only delayed her escape to find out the truth behind her sister's murder. Maybe she would find some answers? If not… she would at least have closure on the matter.      

Dante wasn't too keen on Anastasia being inquisitive about the matter because the murderer could be one of the courtesans, and whoever it was had made sure not to leave any evidence behind. He asked her sarcastically,      

"Don't tell me that Mr. Langston encouraged you to think of it in a positive light?"      

Anastasia smiled awkwardly and shook her head. She said, "I thought about it after you took him out of here…"      

To think that if Dante hadn't poisoned the man and come to her rescue, she would have been forced against her will. She trembled at the thought of it. She was more than grateful and looked over at him, taking another bite from the apple that she held with both hands.      

But when Dante looked at her, the intensity of his gaze made her fumble with the bite, resulting in the apple slipping from her hand and dropping to the ground. At the same time, the fruit's essence dripped from the corner of her lips and his eyes zeroed on it.      

Before Anastasia could wipe it away, Dante reached over and stopped her hand with his own. He leaned in and sensually traced his tongue along the liquid on her face, moving upward until he reached the corner of her lips.      

A Taste of Temptation (Chapter 89)

A small gasp escaped Anastasia's lips upon feeling his lips dangerously close to hers, and she instinctively pulled back as if she had touched something searing hot. She noticed how the prince had trouble holding himself back, and when the opportunity presented itself, he eagerly seized it, diving right into attempting to seduce her.      
"What happened?" Dante questioned her earnestly, making it seem that what he just did wasn't odd.      

"That, your tongue," Anastasia sputtered as she became flustered. How was it possible that he wasn't embarrassed by the action he did? she asked herself, while staring at his questioning black eyes.      

Dante angled his face to hers, and when he spoke, every word of his bounced off her pale pink lips, "You didn't like it?"      

His question made her involuntarily think about it, and she replied, "I don't know…" and her heart began to pound in her ribcage.      

A wicked gleam entered Dante's eyes, and he replied to her, "Let us try it again then, shall we? So that we can decide if you hate it or if it makes your toes curl."      

"T—That is fine, you don't have—"    

"I want to," Anastasia heard Dante's words as he gently pushed her hand down with the back of his own. He asked her, "Have you ever tasted chocolate, Anastasia?"      

Anastasia's attention was torn between how the prince looked at her and the question he asked. She answered, "I haven't."    

"Then let me introduce you to its taste," Dante responded, maintaining his unwavering gaze on her, making sure his rabbit didn't run. Not that she could run away from him, but he allowed the rabbit to think that she could escape him, a false sense of possible freedom.      

Anastasia's eyes briefly shifted from his intense eyes to his hand as it moved towards the trolley of food in the room. His fingers dipped into a small bowl that resembled gooey mud, and she observed as his fingers were brought before her already-parted lips. She softly gulped and said,      

"I can eat it myself." The last distinct memory of her being fed was by her mother.      

But Dante's two fingers didn't budge, waiting for Anastasia to taste it, and while he waited, a drop of the liquid chocolate on his fingers dripped onto the swell of her chest, sliding down to the curve of her breast.      

Dante's free hand came to press on the back of Anastasia's, which was resting on the bed, quietly letting her know not to move. His head dipped down, and not a moment later, she felt his coarse tongue delicately graze her skin, lapping up the gooey chocolate. Her body trembled, and her breathing turned shaky.      

"Do you feel that, Anastasia?" Dante whispered over her now wet skin before sucking the last essence of the bittersweet taste off her skin.      

Anastasia realised that Dante's touch was nothing like the repulsive advances she had endured from Mr. Langston, who had been forceful in his approach earlier. It wasn't that the prince wasn't being forceful, but he was conniving enough to entice her with seduction, igniting the sparks of need and want that she hadn't previously experienced.      

However, despite the allure of the moment, logic and reality hadn't entirely abandoned Anastasia's mind, and she breathlessly asked,      

"Shouldn't these things be done when one is married?"      

As Dante pulled away from her chest, Anastasia caught him running his tongue across his lips and tracing the corners of his mouth before locking eyes with hers. It occurred to her that the man possessed a sinful tongue. His eyes subtly narrowed as he watched her, and he said,      

"If you have thoughts of another man in your future, it would be wise to drop them now, little rabbit."    

Anastasia didn't miss the gleam of possessive glare that flashed through his eyes, and it made her draw her feet closer to the bed. Her heart shook before she asked,      

"Was it a lie, then? To give me a choice and time to decide?"    

Dante's other hand, the one with chocolate-coated fingers, came to gently brush against her lips. He stated,      

"No, it wasn't a lie. I just happen to be confident in what I do. You may deny it because you have never felt your emotions stirred or thoughts scattered, but I will help you indulge in it so you become aware, and understand that no one else will ever be enough," he promised her. "Why don't you take it as a challenge, since you are so certain, hm? Part your lips so that you can have a taste."    

Anastasia became flustered and said, "You are treating me like a child."      

"Would you rather prefer that I treat you coarsely?" One side of Dante's lips curled upwards, because he was indeed treating her carefully.      

Anastasia hurriedly attempted to fix her words, "I didn't mean th—", but she was silenced by Dante's fingers pressing against her lips.      

"Too late to take your words back," Dante was not going to miss the chance offered by the slip she inadvertently provided to him.      

He had been with women before, not those within the confines of the palace but outside these walls, and never had anyone evoked such strong emotions in him, feelings of both a fierce desire to protect and at the same time a want to wreck her according to his liking.      

Seeing her all dolled up had irked Dante. He resented the attention she received from the men who kept calling her to their side to serve them in the Hall of Mirrors, while he watched them with a disapproving glare. And now that they were alone, he wanted to hold her captive.      

Anastasia's sole desire was to protect her heart, mind and body, but Dante was hell-bent on making her succumb to the wicked pleasure he dangled before her. To think this was the same person who had pointed his dagger at her neck, scaring her out of her wits, who now wanted to seduce her.      

She felt him press his fingers on her lips, and she silently took on the challenge as there was nothing to lose, was there? When her lips parted, his chocolate-coated fingers slipped into her wet mouth.      

A small frown graced her face when she tasted the bitter yet sweet chocolate on his fingers, as she had never tasted anything like this before. She had seen the people in the kitchen grinding and heating it, but never had she sneaked a taste.      

"Don't be shy," Dante coaxed, watching her lips wrap around his fingers.      

Feeling more at ease than frightened, Anastasia sucked on his fingers to capture every bit of chocolate offered to her. He watched her with fascination, his eyes tracing her flushed face and the mesmerising movement of her lips, enticed by the tantalising sensation evoked by her tongue.      

"Don't waste it," Anastasia heard him instruct her.      

Blood had already rushed up her neck and face at the embarrassing things she was doing by licking the chocolate off his long fingers. He asked her, "Did you like it?" His eyes smouldered as he pulled his fingers out of her parted lips and brushed her bottom lip with his thumb.      

"It was good," Anastasia whispered, talking about the chocolate, the dull thought of his fingers mixed in with the chocolate dawning in the back of her mind when she caught him clenching his jaw.      

"More?" Dante offered her, "Or are you scared?" he added, daring her.      

But Anastasia wasn't going to fall for his trap, and she didn't deny his claim, replying, "I am."    

"And what are you scared about, Anastasia?" Not wanting to push her more than she could take, Dante retrieved his hand to his side. Seeing her stare back at him without responding, he shifted away from her and said, "Place your feet up here," while patting on the surface of the bed.      

Anastasia's eyebrows furrowed, but without questioning him, she lifted the hem of her dress before placing her feet on the space that Dante had made. Curious, she leaned forward and asked him,      

"Is something wrong?"      

"Mm," Dante hummed, and then pulled something out from inside his coat. Soon he fastened something made of metal around her ankle, and she noticed that it was an anklet before he did the same for her other ankle.      

Anastasia had heard of and seen the gifts her sister had received from various men while she was alive. She wondered if this was a similar situation. The anklets were pretty, and they looked like they were expensive. She said,      

"I cannot accept something as valuable as this."      

"Don't mistake this to be one of those doting gifts for your service, because you didn't exactly service me. Don't ever take them off," Dante warned her, because she was the woman he had chosen. He said, "You looked lonely a second ago, as if someone had abandoned you. This is so that you remember you belong to me and no one else."    

Anastasia felt her heart skip a beat at Dante's ardent words, and she didn't know what to say. After her sister's death, she had resented the royal family, and she felt lost, and now to think that this man had found her. His words were direct, revealing his honest emotions, and she bit her lip.      

She quickly put her feet back on the ground and looked ahead, feeling the anklets underneath her dress and his eyes still on her.      

After a minute, Dante leaned backwards until he laid flat on the bed. He placed one of his hands behind his head and said,      

"With the fly dead, you should sleep now."    

Anastasia turned to look at Dante, who had gotten comfortable on one side of the bed. Sleep in the same bed? she asked herself. He said, "Lay down and close your eyes."      


Mother Queen’s Shenanigans (Chapter 90)

In one of the corridors on the forbidden side of the palace, Princess Emily walked in haste, holding the front of her dress. Upon seeing her grandmother, the princess exclaimed,      
"Grandmother! There has been a problem! Anna is in trouble!"      

"What trouble? More secrets?" the Mother Queen questioned her granddaughter.      

"Anna has been assigned to service one of the men of the court. I went to Madame Minerva to get the details, but she was unwilling to disclose anything. She said she could not tell me the whereabouts or the identity of the one who took Anna," Princess Emily's worry grew with every passing second. "I tried to find her, but the maids and the other servants were clueless. Do you think she was taken outside the palace?"      

Unlike the concubines, who were bound by strict rules forbidding them from leaving the palace walls, it wasn't the same for the courtesans, who enjoyed greater freedom. They had the privilege of accompanying men who desired their company, granting them the liberty to step outside the confines of the palace.      

The Mother Queen scowled at this information and demanded, "How dare that witch try to come in between my plans and goals? Where is she?"      

"Is there a way to get to Anna directly rather than through Madame Minerva? I am sure if we meddle with her, word will be sent to Queen Maya, which in turn will alert her and the others," Princess Emily explained to her grandmother, who looked furious.      

"Let us go and ascertain if she's still in the palace," the old woman decided in a resolute tone.      

Princess Emily decided to accompany her grandmother and said, "But the corridors are guarded as they are restricted now. How will we navigate them without being noticed?"      

"I have that covered. You will see," the old woman assured her as she started walking, and the princess quickly followed her footsteps. When they reached one of the deserted corridors, they looked left and right to make certain they were empty before the Mother Queen kicked one of the bricks in the wall.      

Soon, the bricks in the walls began to move, forming the opening of a hidden doorway, inviting them to step inside. Princess Emily's mouth fell open, because in her twenty years in the palace, she had never known about this. Curiosity prompted her to ask,      

"How long has this been here, Grandmother?"      

"For as long as I can remember," the Mother Queen chuckled upon seeing her granddaughter's worried expression as they stepped through the doorway. "Can you believe that your grandfather was unaware of their existence? Actually, I am not sure if anyone in either the family or those that work in the palace know that the palace has secret passages that resemble a maze. Without the proper knowledge, one could easily end up in a completely different location."    

"I don't know about anyone else, but I am sure Aiden knows about them, considering how he likes to escape and hide," Princess Emily remarked, covering her mouth because of the dust and cobwebs that covered the walls and ceiling. When the door closed behind them, she turned to look at it, observing the darkness at the end of the passage. "Do you know where we are going?"      

"No," came the confident answer from the Mother Queen.      

Princess Emily asked her, "Grandmother… How many times have you walked through these secret passages?"      

"Maybe once. Don't worry, with the two of us together, I am confident we will find the right door," the Mother Queen replied, walking ahead of the princess.      

And as the two of them walked on, a shadow followed behind them, moving at the same pace as their footsteps. After navigating through a few turns in silence, Princess Emily heard something behind her and quickly snapped her head to look over her shoulder, but there was nothing but darkness.      

And while Emily had turned to look behind her, her attention momentarily diverted, the Mother Queen had reached the end of the corridor. The faint sound of receding footsteps entered her ears from her right, causing a frown to form on her wrinkled forehead at the thought that there was someone there beside them, only to realise that it was none other than Dante.      

Dante carried someone over his shoulder, and the Mother Queen bent forward, her eyes scrunching in concentration as she struggled to discern who it was. When her grandson turned and stepped into another passage, she finally saw that it was one of the courtiers. Wasn't he the one who was conversing with the young courtesan in the Hall of Mirrors? the old woman questioned herself.      

And while the Mother Queen stood further ahead, trying to piece together what she knew and saw, Princess Emily couldn't shrug off the nagging feeling that they were not alone. She wondered if it was her paranoid self that was scared of darkness that was making her overthink.      


Emily's stomach sank upon hearing her father's voice coming from the very passage they had walked through earlier.      

'Your brother killed me, Lily,' her father's voice spoke to her, and Emily moved backwards, feeling the hair on her skin stand up in terror.      

"Emily," the Mother Queen returned to her granddaughter and said, "I think there's no need to look for Anastasia." She then noticed Emily's face, which had turned pale.      

"G—Grandmother, Father's ghost is in here," Emily blurted out, revealing what she had heard.    

"What? Where?" the Mother Queen questioned, and looked in the direction her granddaughter was staring. "William? Your mother is here," the woman said with no hint of fear.      

When they received only silence for an answer, the Mother Queen placed her hand on Emily's shoulder and said, "How about we step out of these passages? I forgot that you aren't particularly fond of spaces like these. Come, dear."      

Emily's hands had turned cold, and she wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible before she fainted from hearing the strange voice. Scared of the darkness, she caught hold of her grandmother's sleeve as they walked back and stepped out of the passageway.      

The Mother Queen said, "Apparently the matter has been taken care of, and we can both get some good rest."    

"You think so…?" Emily doubted she could sleep at all.      

"The girl is safe and there's no need to worry. I shall retire to my roo—"    

"Wait, Grandmother!" Emily stopped the Mother Queen, who raised her eyebrows in question. "There's something I wanted to ask."      

"You don't have to wait for me to say go on, Emily," the Mother Queen waved her hand as if telling her granddaughter to continue, as stopping only left her in suspense.      

"Have you ever wondered who… who killed Father and the concubine?" Emily asked, feeling uneasiness building in her chest.    

"Hm," the Mother Queen hummed before she replied, "Everyone is a suspect, dear. That's how you deal with it."      

"Doesn't that strain the relationships then?" Emily doubted that one of her brothers had killed her father. She was unable to imagine it.      

"What's important is your safety. There's nothing wrong in keeping an eye on everyone," the Mother Queen stated before adding, "For the killer not to have been caught yet, it makes me feel as though it is someone we'd all least suspect. Goodnight, Emily."    

"Goodnight, Grandmother," Emily offered her a bow, leaving the corridor to retire to her room.      

Back in the room, Anastasia slowly scooted backwards, and when she came to sit parallel to where Dante lay, she turned around before lying down on her front.      

"Does your back still hurt as much as before?" Dante asked as he watched her.      

She turned her head in his direction, and she shook her head. "No. Only when it's touched or pressure is applied," she replied softly.      

When Dante retrieved a pillow and placed it beneath Anastasia's head, she lowered it to rest in a comfortable position. Servants were not afforded the privilege of using pillows, and it felt like her head floated amidst the clouds.      

"Do you want me to take a look at it?"      

"No, I am fine," Anastasia was embarrassed to reveal her back to him again, even though she knew he wouldn't do anything strange to her. She said, "Earlier, I made sure to press a towel against it so as not to leave it wet."    

"That's good to hear," Dante hummed, and he then said, "You will be uncomfortable with your current hairstyle."    

Anastasia reached for the hairpins and pulled out the ones she could, but there were a few that the other courtesan had pinned, making it difficult for her to remove them. As if not knowing how to proceed, she looked at Dante and murmured,      

"They aren't coming out…"    

Dante moved closer to her and carefully untangled the pins stuck in one another. Once he pulled all the black pins out, some of her hair came to fall on the side of her face, and he gently brushed the loose strands back into place.      

Anastasia then felt him remove the earring that was still adorning her ear and heard him say, "Raise your head off the pillow." When she did, his hand unhooked the earring dangling from her other ear. He traced his finger across her cheek and said, "Look what happened, the metal pressed against your cheek. You should be able to sleep more comfortably now."      

Dante dropped the earrings onto the surface of the side table and turned his gaze back towards her to find Anastasia observing him, but she quickly averted her eyes. But that didn't stop him from continuing to admire her while resting on his side.      

"Close your eyes, Anastasia."      

Anastasia did as she was told, breathing softly and trying to lull herself to sleep so that morning would arrive swiftly.      

But even though she eventually fell asleep, she abruptly woke up four hours later, her mind preoccupied with everything that had happened.      

Earlier, her mind had succumbed to panic when Madame Minerva dragged her to this room, telling her that she was expected to service a man that night. She had felt revolted at the very thought, but here she was, sharing a bed with a man, and as it happened, that man was Dante Blackthorn.      

Curious, she slowly pried her eyes open to be greeted by the view of the room, which had grown dimmer as most of the candles had been spent. Her eyes then fell on Dante, who was fast asleep.      

Anastasia realised that the space between them that was there when she had fallen asleep had disappeared, and she was right next to him. When she carefully raised her upper body, she realised it wasn't him, but her, who had moved closer in her sleep.      

His hand, which he had placed behind his head, had come to rest against his waist. Her eyes wandered to take a closer look at him. The coat he had worn earlier had been removed and the top two buttons of his shirt were left undone, revealing part of his smooth chest. As Anastasia's eyes travelled up his neck to reach his face, she noticed that one side of his hair, which he frequently combed backwards, had become dishevelled.      

Subconsciously, Anastasia leaned forward to get a better look at the cursed prince. She wondered what part of him was so cursed that people had tainted his reputation. Before they had interacted, he scared her. Not that he didn't now, but… she was less afraid of him.      

"I thought I told you to sleep, what are you doing up instead?"      

Anastasia met Dante's eyes, which had opened to look straight into hers. She hadn't meant to wake him up, and she said,      

"I couldn't sleep."      

"And you came to me to sleep?" Dante asked her, his voice holding a slight huskiness, as if he had fallen asleep and had woken up because of her movements on the bed.      

"No—I, I don't know how I got here," Anastasia whispered, feeling like she had been caught doing something she wasn't supposed to do. She mumbled, "I will go back to sleep."    

"Okay," Dante responded, watching Anastasia pull away and turn to sleep on her side with her back facing him.      

His eyes fell on her brown hair spread out on the pillow and the surface of the bed. His hand reached out for it, touching the locks of her soft hair without her knowledge. From her breathing, he could tell that she was wide awake and her head occasionally moved at the slightest noise that was caused by the air blowing in through the window.      

Even though Anastasia didn't turn to look behind her, she had a suspicion that Dante was still watching her. She asked him,      

"Won't it be troublesome if someone sees you in here?"      

"I will be gone before the break of dawn. It wouldn't go over well if they find out that Mr. Langston was murdered," she heard Dante respond to her. "If my presence is bothering you, I can leave," he said, and she heard the bed softly creak.      

"That's not necessary," Anastasia's words quickly left her mouth. Her hands had turned into loose fists, and she bit her bottom lip before she added, "I mean, you don't have to leave…." She was scared to spend the night alone in this big room that Madame Minerva had left her in.      

Not only that, Anastasia was scared about Mr. Langston's ghost haunting this room, as this was where he had died. On one hand, she wanted to believe in the existence of ghosts because that would mean it would offer her a chance to speak to her sister, but then on the other hand, she was scared to encounter the unknown spirits.      

When a gust of wind blew inside the room from the cracks of the window, one of the white curtains moved, making her scared once again. Before her imagination could run wild, along with her racing heart, her sight was obstructed by darkness as Dante's hand covered her eyes.      

"I need you to sleep, Anastasia. Don't be a naughty child," Dante whispered. Anastasia's entire focus shifted to Dante's voice and his presence, which was close to her.      

Anastasia tried to calm her breathing, and after a few seconds, Dante pulled his hand away from her eyes, but he didn't move away from her, lying right behind her. As her eyes grew heavier and her senses barely able to keep in tune, she finally fell back asleep.      

When the following day arrived, Anastasia was woken up by Madame Minerva, who had burst through the door, and the woman demanded,      

"What are you doing sleeping past ten in the morning? It is time to return to the quarters."    

Anastasia's eyes pried open, and she sat upright on the bed before she turned to look at the space Dante had occupied the entire night. Madame Minerva said,      

"How was your first night? Mr. Langston treated you well it seems? Oh, it must be your first time sleeping on such a plush mattress."    

Anastasia decided to tell a half-truth and replied, "He had me dance and sing. He was tired and proposed we should rest for the night. Where is he?" She asked her while walking out of the room and down the corridor.    

"He probably left to attend the court meeting that began earlier this morning," Madame Minerva said, and looked the young woman up and down before adding, "That's very unlike Mr. Langston. Maybe he realised what an inexperienced woman you are. Wash and change. You have to attend to your studies and other lessons."    

When Anastasia returned to the Paradise Tower, the other courtesans looked at her but didn't bother talking to her as they returned to what they were doing. Once she was done with her classes and was returning to the tower, she met Princess Emily along the way.      

Anastasia offered a bow to the princess, who acknowledged it with a nod and smile. The princess asked her, "How is your back, Anna?"      

"I am doing better today, Princess. How are you doing?" Anastasia noticed how the princess didn't have a maid following her, as if she hadn't yet filled the position.      

"I have been doing well, though I miss our time together," Princess Emily responded, and she then said, "If you don't have anything to do, would you like to take a walk with me?"    

"I would be happy to," Anastasia answered, and soon they began to walk in the corridors.      

Princess Emily's lips tightened momentarily, and then she said, "I am sorry I couldn't be of much help."    

"Please don't be, Princess," Anastasia was glad she didn't have to sleep with the stranger. "It has been a pleasure serving you, and I hope someone good can take my previous position."      

"I decided not to have a personal maid for now, at least until some things settle down," Princess Emily said, indirectly talking about her bratty sister. As they continued to walk, the princess said, "By the way, I thought I should let you know ahead of time that my grandmother knows you are Tasia Flores. She recognised you last evening."      

"Did she say anything?" Anastasia asked worriedly, turning to look at the princess with a shocked look on her face.      

"Not much. She was angry, but she's fine now," Princess Emily assured her.      

When the two young women came near one of the other corridors, Anastasia noticed the Mother Queen standing there. Upon seeing the old woman's eyes narrow, she quickly offered a bow.      

"Let us go take a stroll in the garden, shall we?" The Mother Queen proposed, without bringing up the subject of how she had been fooled because she didn't like recollecting it.      

Though Anastasia walked behind them, every now and then the Mother Queen turned to look over her shoulder to glance at her with shrewd eyes. The older woman then finally asked,      

"Why did you stop talking? Emily only told me it was circumstance, but never explained what happened."    

Anastasia licked her lips, as they had suddenly turned dry. She replied, "When I was young and new here, I was angry… to have been separated from my family and said something I shouldn't have said. And you overheard me. So I thought it was better to stay quiet than speak, Mother Queen."      

The Mother Queen didn't turn to look at Anastasia and the pace of her footsteps increased. Princess Emily wondered if her grandmother was angry again, not knowing that the Mother Queen was only basking in the beautiful voice that sounded like bells. Wedding bells… the older woman thought to herself, before shaking her head.      

"I see," came the curt response from the Mother Queen, saying nothing else until they reached the forbidden garden. She turned to look at Anastasia and questioned, "Do you like flowers?"      

Anastasia didn't know what was going on, but she nodded and solemnly replied,    

"Yes, Mother Queen."    

"Great. We have a prestigious rose in this garden, and it needs to be well-maintained," the Mother Queen stated, turning to look at the Blackthorn rose. "As you are a courtesan, I will now let you take care of it. Watering, cleaning, pruning."    

Princess Emily turned to look in the other direction. Though she knew what her grandmother was trying to achieve, to another person, it would sound strange. She became increasingly nervous after what had happened to Lady Evin and had no faith in her grandmother's antics.      

"Go on. Time to trim the stems and make room for the rose," the Mother Queen encouraged Anastasia to start working at once to see if the girl would survive the prick.      

Anastasia had her own worries regarding this particular plant, because the dream she had in the past was vivid. She had seen the Blackthorn rose, as well as the other plants surrounding it, wilt after her blood fell on it. Seeing the Mother Queen wave her hand, she turned and made her way towards the deadly plant.      

The Mother Queen whispered to her granddaughter, "The moment of truth has finally come, Emily."    

"I have a bad feeling about this," Emily responded, standing beside her grandmother.    

When Anastasia raised her hand, reaching for the plant, someone ordered, "Step away from the rose, right this instant!"