5 – 12
At first glance, the contents of the box were just normal flowers.
However, the truth was that the flowers had been tampered with. A crimson shaded poison coated the surface, that would dissolve along with its colour into any liquid it came into contact with.
As they all looked silently at the flowers, the senior maid looked even more confident. They looked truly poisonous, had a queerly sweet scent to them, and most of all, Camilla had admitted they were hers.
An attendant who knew more about poisons could examine it safely later, but the truth of the matter was already clear enough.
“Just as I expected, you really are as vile as the stories suggest.”
The senior maid said that, as she sharply closed the box in her hand. Then, after taking a deep breath, she turned to the servants behind her and commanded them with confidence.
“Seize her at once. Arrest this woman and have her locked up immediately!”
Alois finally rose from his chair, to ward off the manservants who had taken a step forward at the maid’s command. But, of course, Camilla had reached the absolute limits of her patience much faster than Alois had.
“Stop spouting utter nonsense however you please! You mean to say that I poisoned Lord Alois!?”
Even Alois’ voice was drowned out as Camilla continued to shout at the senior maid.
“I had no part in it! I don’t know anything about all this!”
“You just said that this belonged to you! Do you truly believe you can shout your way out of this now!?”
“Someone has switched the contents! In the first place, I lost that box days ago!”
There had been some time between Camilla first realizing that the box had gone missing from her room and Alois being poisoned. More than enough time for someone to switch the contents.
So, just why had the contents been swapped? That wasn’t difficult to figure out either. When she was back in the royal capital, situations like this weren’t an uncommon sight in the slightest.
“Someone is attempting to frame me as the culprit!”
“How utterly barefaced! Who on earth would want to frame you in the first place!?”
The maid began to raise her voice to match Camilla’s.
“…Why is there such a commotion so early in the day?”
A cold voice suddenly cut straight through the cacophonous office. Everyone in the room, including Camilla and the senior maid who had been shouting at each other just a moment ago, turned to look at the owner of that cool voice, who had so effortlessly quieted the room.
“This is Lord Alois’ study. I would have you refrain from causing an uproar here.”
As she looked at the servants in the room, her expression was as hard as steel. It was Gerda, the chief maid.
At the sudden intimidating glare, the senior maid’s shoulders went slightly stiff, but she managed to keep talking.
“Miss Gerda! Please, listen to this! This woman is the one behind it! This woman… she attempted to murder Lord Alois with poison!”
“That’s false! I did not do anything of the sort!”
“There is evidence, as well as witnesses! This woman did something with these flowers, and then added them to the cooking! She made them into poisonous flowers!”
“I never did anything like that at all! In the first place, what possible reason could I have to poison Lord Alois!?”
Gerda looked between the two woman who bellowed at once another. But, as she did, surprise never crossed her face, she simply listened to the words being said impassively.
“I see, I understand the situation now. You’ve found the poison, have you? The flowers that garnished the dish? It’s certainly true that flowers were found after Lord Alois collapsed.”
Gerda looked at the senior maid. As if feeling a sense of relief wash over her, the maid looked less tense. It was easy to tell whose side Gerda had fallen on from her words alone.
“I couldn’t allow this office to stay so defiled for long, so I ordered it cleaned, but in truth, we should have investigated more thoroughly at the time. That was my mistake. No, rather, it was a mistake to allow this woman to be anywhere near Lord Alois in the first place.”
“W-wait just a moment! I did not do it! Don’t suddenly decide these things by yourself!!”
Camilla’s suddenly interjected as Gerda looked to start building a definitive story. It was clear from Gerda’s words that she had already pinned Camilla as the culprit. It was natural if one thought about it; she and Camilla had been enemies since the moment they met.
“And like I said earlier, I have no reason to do this at all!! Something like harming Lord Alois, tell me why I would ever want to do that!?”
“There is a reason. Lord Alois has been avoiding you recently. I’ve also been told that your engagement has been pulled off the table and you are to be sent back to the royal capital.”
No matter how fierce and high-strung Camilla’s angry shout was, just as always, Gerda’s voice was low and cold.
“I am sure that you feared to lose your engagement to the Duke, did you not? His Highness, the Second Prince, despises you, and word has already spread that the Storm family has abandoned you, adopting a new daughter in your place. There is nowhere for you to return to back in the royal capital. That’s why you continued to chase after Lord Alois, despite how much he loathed you.”
“Gerda, that’s a misunderstanding. The reason that I was avoiding her was because of my own depression. I have no intention of sending her back to the royal capital now.”
Even though Alois interjected, Gerda shook her head. It was as if Alois’ objection counted for nothing against the narrative she was building.
“Lord Alois, what your feelings were in this matter is irrelevant. Even if you truly did think that Lord Alois, what truly matters is what this woman thought was the reality of the situation. What her truth was. She believed that she was being abandoned by you, Lord Alois, and therefore she resorted to poison.”
“…If she killed me, then she could hardly marry me.”
“Yes. However, she believed that even were you to live, she couldn’t marry you either. Therefore, she must have believed it better to kill you instead. And, should the circumstances arise where you would survive the poisoning, she could then take advantage of your moment of weakness in an attempt to change your feelings.”
Alois stopped speaking, a deep frown creasing his brow. He crossed his arms, listening to Gerda explain her version of events, watching her with enigmatic eyes.
“In fact, even now, that woman is attempting to mould you to her own liking. She herself is the real poison. Those poisonous red flowers planted in your food, that is the true face of Camilla Storm. A woman full of low cunning, whose acts disturbed the peace of the royal capital.”
Her voice resolute, Gerda began to walk towards Alois. Her back was straight, her face was held high, and her eyes never wavered. Those words of hers held a provocative power, and that intelligent and upright face made her words difficult to refute. If she wasn’t the one who was being snared in a trap, Camilla may have even believed her as well.
As proof of that, all the servants in the room seemed utterly convinced by the case Gerda had made. The looks that they sent towards Camilla teetered between hatred, disgust, and abject fear.
Trying to tell him that it wasn’t true, that she really was innocent, Camilla looked at Alois. But, only after sparing a quick glance to Camilla, he immediately turned to look back at Gerda.
Behind that firm expression, there was a sense of sadness in his eyes. As if he was disappointed… as if he had been betrayed.
The words Camilla was going to use to appeal to him died on her tongue. Instead of talking to the now silent Camilla, Alois instead asked Gerda.
“The poison… I heard that it had been used to garnish the dish before it left the kitchen. There are a lot of cooks working in the kitchen. Surely, they would have seen if something was amiss?”
“No. That woman, she has been frequently coming and going from the kitchen for quite some time now. I’ve heard that she has become acquainted with the head chef. It would not be unthinkable that something as minor as garnishing a dish with a flower decoration would be overlooked. In fact, it is possible that the reason she had been so regularly visiting the kitchens was for such a purpose, from the very beginning. She is a cunning woman, after all.”
Alois closed his eyes, taking a deep breath as his eyes stayed closed.
“Your story makes sense.”
“Lord Alois!? I didn’t-!”
She didn’t do it. Alois of all people should understand that. If Camilla and Alois’ roles were swapped, she would never believe it.
“There is also a motive, as well as the opportunity to poison. What’s more, evidence was found. Certainly, it is all too suspicious. I understand the case you’re making.”
But, Alois wasn’t the same. He nodded at Gerda’s words. Gerda nodded back, obediently accepting his reaction.
Perhaps, despite everything, these two really did have a bond as a master and servant who had lived in the same house for many years? In front of Camilla, who was still stunned into silence, Alois let out a deep breath as if he was lifting something off his mind, then spoke.
“But, there is one thing in your story that bothers me, Gerda.”
Disappointment, sadness, a sense of betrayal as well as an odd conviction, all mixed together into a strange sort of expression Camilla had never seen him, nor anyone, wear before. And that look, it was pointed straight at Gerda.
“…How do you know what colour the flowers were?”
Gerda had certainly said ‘poisonous red flowers’.
But, the box in the maid’s hand that contained them, had been closed before Gerda entered the room.