Alexandra led me down a corridor away from the main room. “Brace yourself. You’ll have your work cut out for you.”
I nodded as she guided me through the exit to the garden. Skeletons of trees clawed at the blue sky, and the earth cracked beneath them, dry and starved of life. The stepping stones and paths lay intact, but even those wizened with age and drought. I knelt down and dug my fingers in the dirt, crumbling it between them. I shook my head and turned back to the queen.
“This will be my greatest challenge yet.” I smiled as her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.
“You mean you’ll do it?”
“I have no choice. I can’t very well leave my queen with no garden to suit her, can I?” I stepped past her, touching the cracked bark of a dying tree. “It’ll take some time before it’s ready-”
She nodded. “Of course! There’s no rush. I’ll even enlist help and-”
“Actually, if you don’t mind, I’d like to work on this alone.” I gazed over the barren scape, watching as dirt turned to dust in the breeze.
She came around me, placing her hand on my shoulder. “You can’t be serious, taking on this entire thing by yourself.”
“I am. It’ll keep me busy, give me a reason to stay away from my home.”
Alexandra squeezed my shoulder. “You don’t have to worry about that. You’d stay here, of course.”
My head whipped around to face her. “I couldn’t impose I’m-”
“Part of my staff, and as such, you’ll stay here.” Her eyebrows quirked as her lips turned up into a smile. “Consider it a requirement.”
I chuckled, turning back to the garden. “Should I get started then?”
“Wouldn’t you rather get settled in first?”
I shook my head. “I’ll be spending most of my time here, so my room doesn’t matter much as long as I have a bed to sleep in.”
“I can promise you that and more. Food and clothing will be taken care of as well. You’re also welcome to the common rooms and the library on your time off.”
“You’re too kind. It’ll take some getting used to.”
Alexandra nodded, leading me inside the corridor to the first entrance to the right. “All the tools are in here.” She opened the door revealing a room strung with cobwebs that covered rusted utensils. “Oh! I’ll put in an order for new ones right away.”
I swept the cobwebs away with my arm, lifting a rusted shovel from the floor. “There’s no need. I learned how to keep my tools in good condition. Do you have any vinegar?”
“I’m sure the kitchen has some you could use, why?”
“Secret rust remover, don’t tell anyone.” I put my finger over my lips, winking.
“Your secret is safe with me. I’ll get that from the chef and leave you to your new space.”
I turned back to the room, grabbing the cobwebs from the corners and the rafters and tossing them to the floor. I grabbed a broom from the back corner, reaching it into the far corners and brushing the webs from the ceiling. Spiders scattered and dropped to the ground. I closed the door before any of them could escape, trying to crush them beneath my feet. I continued the routine, swinging the door shut when Alexandra cracked in open.
“Sorry, lots of spiders. Wouldn’t want an eight-legged invasion.”
Her voice quivered from behind the door. “How many are there?”
“I think I got most of them, but they like to run when I sweep. Don’t worry I’ll clean this place up in no time. No cobwebs, no rust, no spiders.” I cleared away the workbench, piling the rusted tools on top.
“I’ll leave the vinegar by the door for you if you don’t mind. I can’t stand the thought of-”
“I understand. Should I report to you when I’ve finished cleaning this place up?”
“Yes, that’d be fine.” Her voice disappeared with a faint echo down the corridor.
I held the broom up in a mock fighting stance. “Okay, you little bastards, you’re mine.”
I gathered the mess in a dustpan, saving it in the trash bin I’d moved beside the bench. I patted down the curtains and moved them away to let light drip into the room. After I plucked the vinegar from the floor on the other side of the door, I laid my tools in a line, pouring a thin layer of vinegar on top. I dusted myself off, wiping my hands on my apron as I stepped out of the room. I wandered back to the throne room to find the queen lost in a book. I cleared my throat and she jumped at the new sound.
“I’m sorry to startle you, but the room is much cleaner now.”
“And the spiders?”
“All dead as far as I can tell.”
She sighed, closing her book as she stepped down from her throne. “Good. How about your tools?”
“They need to soak for awhile, but I should be able to use them soon.”
“Good, then while we wait, I’ll show you to your room.”
She guided me up into the east wing of the castle, pointing me to the library as we went. “There are plenty of books on gardening if you need them. I spend time in here as well, should you need to find me.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
She stopped at the last door on the left, across from the library. “Your room is right here.” Alexandra swung the door open. “I hope you like it.”
A king sized bed stole my gaze from the center of the room, and blue and gold curtains hung shut in from of the windows. A closet, a velvet chair, and a wooden nightstand took up portions of space as well, still leaving me with more than I’d ever had.
I didn’t dare cross the threshold. “There must be a mistake. This can’t all be for me.”
“Why not? You deserve it with all the work you have ahead of you.”
“Please, call me Alexandra.”
“I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be proper.”
“How about a condition then?”
I nodded, turning away from the bedroom. “Name it!”
“Will you show me how? To work in the garden, I mean. I know you said you’d like to work alone but-”
“My queen, all you need is the will to see things live.”