Chapter 55: The Corruption of Paradise
Hana absently played with the tiny blonde braid Eleanora had woven just behind her ear as she sat beneath her parasol. Octavia had prepared a tray of blueberry muffins and tea—which Hana politely refused. The memory of Eleanora slicing through the belladonna pastry was still fresh.
“Never eat anything offered to you by the Dowager!” Eleanora had warned her not long after.
“But—she wouldn’t dare offer it to me herself if it had poison—that would implicate her.”
“And who would dare hold the Queen Regent accountable while she still controls the throne?”
After that, it had been difficult for Hana to eat anything not prepared by Mrs. Poppy, the palace maid they had brought with them from Vetrayna.
‘How long will the Dowager continue to play with us like this?’ Hana wondered as Octavia silently sipped her tea. Sabella stood beside her mistress with a parasol in hand and kept the Queen Regent well-shaded while she remained exposed to the sun and the steadily rising heat.
Three of the five remaining candidates had already successfully returned. Sabella introduced each of them to Hana in turn. The first one back was Lady Evelynn, whose bouquet of red and pink flowers and roses Hana found particularly beautiful. Then came Lady Meredith, who opted for giant white lilies, white roses, and some blue flowers Hana did not recognize. The last of the three was the bubbly Lady Tiffany, who had selected a mixture of white and pink roses and hydrangeas.
Which meant there was still two candidates missing and thirty minutes remaining before the competition was finished.
Hana waved away a flying grasshopper and flinched as the Dowager crushed the offending insect with her fan.
“Pesky things,” Octavia murmured as she passed her fan to Sabella, who wordlessly handed the Dowager her parasol and moved to the fountain to clean away the bug’s remains.
Hana wiped absently at the sweat forming against her hairline and neck. ‘Surely, Eleanora is wondering where I am by now. I’m certain I told Poppy I was coming to the garden.’ If only her brash and daring Vetrayna princess would appear to crash whatever plans the Dowager had in store and free Hana from this suffocating tension.
The heat was the least of her worries. The Vetrayna sun and desert climate were infinitely hotter by comparison. Still, Hana would rather spend her morning fending off scorpions then playing with wolves.
She glanced towards the candidates, who fanned themselves furiously as they wilted like flowers beneath the sun. One glance at the Dowager, who twirled her parasol and observed the garden with half-closed eyes and the faintest smirk, confirmed that all was going according to the old wolf’s plans.
‘Perhaps it was time to stop passively playing along?’
“Your Grace,” Hana said hesitantly. “I really should return to the Rose Palace. Her Highness will have returned by now—”
“Nonsense, you promised to help me judge the flowers,” Octavia dismissed with ease.
‘I never promised anything!’ Hana flinched as she recalled casually agreeing to help the Dowager judge at her request.
“But—I know nothing about flowers,” Hana countered determinedly. “I don’t believe that I’m an appropriate judge for this sort of thing.”
Octavia chuckled with amusement as she set down her tea. “My dear, there is no one better than you to judge this event.”
Hana stared back at her blankly, unclear as to the Dowager’s meaning.
Octavia leaned over her chair, claimed Hana’s hand, and then pulled the younger woman closer.
“My dear,” Octavia whispered as she patted Hana’s hand. “You should remember that it is not just the Crown Princess but yourself who will have to spend every day with the ladies chosen by this Selection. However, unlike Eleanora, you won’t be able to dismiss them just because you dislike them.” Octavia nodded towards the candidates. “So, consider this your final opportunity to remove those you consider unsuitable before they get to Eleanora.”
“That—doesn’t seem fair,” Hana replied falteringly. “Besides—how will I know what they’re like based on flowers?”
“As I said before, given the right environment, even the most guarded man or woman will reveal their true character,” Octavia reminded her patiently with a conspiratorial smile.
Hana pulled away from the Dowager’s grasp and eyed the candidates uncertainly. All she saw were three women younger than herself made miserable by the heat and in desperate need of some food, water, and shade.
“And here’s Lady Katalin,” Sabella said as she gestured towards the flushed young woman rushing towards them with a vase of orange lilies, red and purple roses, and yellow and green foliage.
“I’m back,” Katalin panted as she set the vase down on the table with the others. She stepped back with a sigh of relief and scratched her wrists. Then, recalling her audience, hastily presented a curtsey to the Queen Regent and took her seat. “Am I the last one to return?” she whispered to Evelynn, who sat with Meredith on the bench beside her.
Hana watched Evelynn glance over at Katalin with a pitying look before she shook her head. “No, Lady Maura is not here yet.”
“The half-blood?” Katalin sighed in aggravation and scratched her neck.
The girl’s odd behavior drew Hana’s attention to the rash, forming along on Katalin’s arms. She quickly shifted her focus to Katalin’s bouquet suspiciously.
Octavia followed her gaze and smirked. “I see you’ve found our first victim.”
Hana ignored her as she focused on the green spoon-shaped leaves with their tooth-like edges.
“There’s the half-blood!” Lady Meredith called out as the towering figure of Captain Beaumont appeared, carrying not just Lady Maura, but a vase full of purple flowers.
Hana frowned at Meredith, who smirked and whispered with Evelynn as Beaumont carried Maura past them to an empty bench. Katalin still scratched mindlessly at her arms but appeared entirely focused on the conversation between Meredith and Evelynn.
“Greetings, Queen Regent, Lady Hana,” Maura said as Beaumont set her down on the bench. He lifted the vase from her arms and placed it on the table with the other bouquets before returning to Maura’s side. Both of them looked flushed and seemed somewhat on edge, though that was probably due to the heat.
“What a beautiful arrangement, Lady Maura,” Octavia said sweetly.
Hana glanced over at the Dowager with surprise. So far, Octavia hadn’t paid a single compliment to any of the other candidates. She turned and eyed Maura warily.
‘Was the Dowager supporting this half-blood? No, wait, that couldn’t be right—surely she’s just playing games with me again, trying to make me think she’s supporting the half-blood, so I’ll cut her from the competition.’
Katalin whimpered as she scratched her cheek, and Hana had enough.
“Lady Katalin,” Hana called out as she rose from her seat beside the Dowager. “Are you aware the green leaves in your bouquet are poison ivy?”
“Poison—what?” Katalin stared down at the red bumps forming along her arms and touched her face in horror. “Poison Ivy?!” She whirled towards Meredith and Evelynn, who sat beside each other with matching smirks. “But you told me—”
“Who?” Octavia cut in sharply. “Who told you what, Lady Katalin?”
Katalin blinked rapidly, tears forming in her eyes as she spun angrily and shifted her accusing gaze to Maura. “She—”
“Lady Maura has been at my side since we entered the garden,” Beaumont interjected with a thundering growl. “And we never interacted with you or any of the other candidates, Lady Katalin.”
Katalin blinked back tears as she stammered, then her gaze and finger turned towards Tiffany. “It was her—She—She told me they would look good with my bouquet!”
“Me?” Tiffany squeaked in surprise. “But I haven’t seen you or your bouquet until now!”
Katalin spun and stumbled towards the Dowager and Hana. “Please, Queen Regent—Lady Hana!” She knelt and wept bitterly. “Lady Tiffany should—no, she must be disqualified!”
Hana stared down at the sobbing girl appalled.
‘How could she let the true culprit go free only to blame it on another?’
Hana glanced towards Tiffany, who stood trembling in shock and anger. Then she turned to Maura, who sat in composed silence though her blue eyes studied Katalin with cold disinterest.
‘Lady Maura was fortunate to have Captain Beaumont by her side as an alibi—but poor Lady Tiffany.’
“I did no such thing, Lady Katalin!” Tiffany protested.
“Yes, you did!” Katalin screamed back at her. “Don’t think that just because your family is rich, you can bully others! You’re still only the daughter of a Baron!”
“This is ridiculous,” Hana groaned as she rubbed her tired eyes. Skipping breakfast was beginning to affect her as much as it was these candidates. “Please tell us the truth, Lady Katalin.”
“I am, Lady Hana!” Katalin protested and wept into her handkerchief as if she were going to her own funeral.
‘Why is she still lying?’ Hana shook her head and turned to the Dowager.
Octavia’s gaze and cold smile extinguished the protest on the tip of Hana’s tongue. ‘Of course, this is what you wanted.’
The Dowager waved her hand permissively. “I’ll let you settle this, Lady Hana. Simply choose the bouquet that you like the least, and this evaluation will be over.”
‘So, you brought me along to do your dirty work.’
Katalin continued her loud weeping. The dreadful heart numbing sound beat against the dull ache forming at the back of Hana’s skull.
“The sooner you make your decision, the faster we can all get out of this heat,” Octavia reminded her sympathetically.
“But—” Hana glanced from the weeping girl covered in angry rashes to the two possible culprits, Meredith and Evelynn. The pair stared back at her with polite and patient smiles as they continued to fan themselves, unphased.
‘They don’t seem at all worried I’ll eliminate them. But how can they be so confident?’
“No need to hesitate, child,” Octavia murmured as she rose from her seat by the fountain. “I’m certain you’ve already made your choice.”
Hana gave a dry laugh and cleared her throat. “Yes, I suppose I have.”
‘I’m just not sure it’s the right choice.’
“Then please,” Octavia gestured towards the vases. “And remember, this will be your only chance to influence the Selection, Lady Hana.”
Hana stood slowly and glanced over the five remaining candidates once more.
‘Kritanta’s Mercy. Who does she want me to cut? Lady Evelynn or Lady Meredith? One of them is responsible for what happened to Lady Katalin? But they seem to expect either Lady Maura or Lady Tiffany to take the blame, probably because they’re family positions are lower—so who is the right choice?’
Hana took in a slow breath and twisted the braid behind her ear. ‘No, it doesn’t matter if the Dowager is playing a game. If this is my one chance to eliminate someone who could harm Eleanora, then my decision is clear.’
Hana walked past Katalin to the table of vases. She examined the collage of flowers, then stepped forward and pushed the vessel with poison ivy over the edge. The porcelain shattered against the stone walkway, and Katalin gasped in horror.
‘Someone who can’t stand up for themselves. Someone that easily influenced to push the blame onto others isn’t worthy to stand beside Eleanora.’
Satisfied with her decision, Hana turned around—and felt her heart sink as she encountered the Dowager’s victorious smile.
“You made the right decision, Lady Hana.”