I watched as the people of the village bowed to their new queen. I clutched my covered basket in my fists, gasping as my mother shoved me to my knees.
“You will bow to royalty, petulant girl!” Her voice hissed as she leaned in close.
The queen’s gaze shifted to the motion, and she rose from her cobalt throne.
My mother dug her nails into my shoulder. “See what you’ve done? Embarrassed me already.”
As she strode to us, my mother stepped in front of me, blocking my view. I shifted off of my knees, rising to my feet. I bent low as my mother started to speak.
“You’ll have to forgive my daughter. All the time she spends in her gardens, she has the manners of a hog.”
The queen peeked over my mother’s shoulder, eyes flicking down to my basket. “I’ll thank you not to speak ill of a person I’ve yet to judge for myself.” She motioned for my mother to step aside, closing the gap between us. ‘What is it you’ve brought?”
I uncovered the basket without a word, revealing azure orchids and white calla lilies. Her hands covered her mouth as she gasped and her crown tilted. She straightened it as I held the basket out to her.
“They’re not much, but these were my best.”
My mother snatched my wrist. “What were you thinking? Trying to give our new queen Alexandra some of your glorified weeds.”
The queen pried my wrist from my mother’s grasp, lifting the basket from me. “If these are weeds, miss, then you must grow nothing but the finest crystals.”
My mother’s mouth snapped shut, and she stepped back. Her face flushed, and she stayed silent as the queen turned her attention back to me.
“What’s your name?”
I kept my head lay, directing my name to the ground. “Zinnia.”
She tilted my chin up. “Now, now. That’s a name to be proud as well as your beautiful flowers. Please, say again for me.”
Tears prickled as they welled in my eyes. “Zinnia, your majesty.”
Her jewel speckled crown swayed as her head dipping down. “Zinnia, it’s an honor to receive your best blooms as a gift. Perhaps you’d consider a position here. Our gardens could use your help.”
My mother cut in before I could open my mouth to answer. “Your highness, I assure you, the girl has no place here. A dirty one with her hands in the mud, always.”
The queen’s eyebrows quirked. “Thank you for your concern, but it wouldn’t make much sense to hire a gardener who’s yet to touch the ground they’re trying to use.”
I put my hand on the queen’s shoulder. “I’m afraid she’s right. I don’t think I’d belong here.” My mother’s smirk bore into me. “But I’d like to try.”
The queen smiled and nodded, taking my hand in hers. “Then I have a question for you, a test of sorts.”
I froze as the queen gestured to her crown.
“What do you think of this?”
I paused, raising my eyes to take in the sight of the golden crown. It weighed the queen’s hair down, pushing into her forehead as it sat unbalanced on top of her head.
“My lady, would you rather hear my honest thoughts or pretty lies?”
She laughed. “I’d much rather your honesty. Go ahead.”
“Your crown is, well …hideous.”
The villagers gasped and their stares seared into me from all directions. My mother turned me around, and a crack echoed through the room as her hand contacted my cheek. My head whipped to the side, and I crumpled to the floor. I gripped my cheek, cowering as my mother towered over me. The queen stepped between us, helping me to my feet. She turned back to my mother and motioned for guards.
“How dare you strike her in front of me?”
“But your majesty, she insulted you!” My mother’s gaze darted between the two of us. “She had no right.”
“I asked for her honest opinion. She had every right.” The queen turned her attention to the guards as they approached. “Escort her out as the villagers leave, there’s nothing more for them to see.”
They nodded without a word, taking my mother in their grip. At first, she fought, reaching for me as she tried to twist away. The queen turned away as the guards hauled her toward the door. The villagers left in a trial of murmurs and shifting stares.
“Are you alright?”
I rose back to my feet, wiping a few stray tears. “Nothing to worry about, I’m used to it.” The words flew out before I could stop them, and I hung my head.
She paused, opening her mouth to respond. Instead, she touched my stinging cheek. “You needn’t worry about that kind of treatment here. I have one more question for you, though.”
I stiffened as she took her hand away. “Yes?”
She touched the crown on her head, wincing as it pulled her hair with each movement. “You said this crown is ugly, and I agree.” She lifted it from her head, running her fingers through her hair. “Do you think you could make a crown from these?” She lifted the basket.
I smiled, taking the first orchid from the group, twisting the step with the first lily. “I thought you’d never ask.”