The sun beat down on me as we proceeded through the garden. The head maid walked with purpose and I followed obediently. She spoke to me, but all her words were drowned out by the screams of cicadas. It was too hot. I couldn't focus on her if my life depended on it- and it might, if she was explaining my duties to me.
Starting today, I was a gardener at the estate of the Grand Duke, Devon Ayre. This was a world of absolute monarchy- of divine right- and I was simply a commoner. I'd heard that the Duke had a gentle hand with his staff, but you could never be too careful. If I messed up bad enough somewhere else, I'd be punished, but if I messed up out here-
The air was heavy- with heat, with humidity, and with the scent of thousands upon thousands of flowers. It was like being in a sweltering, perfumed cocoon. I kept my head bowed and nodded along to whatever I was being told.
The cobblestones beneath me were unnaturally perfect, but what else could be expected? They fit together like jigsaw pieces; uniform and flat. The Duke's manor must always be perfect, but his gardens especially. The Ayre Gardens were famous throughout the world and had been for generations. It was considered an honor to even view the beds of brightly colored blooms, let alone take a leisurely stroll through them on a summer's day.
A few rose petals whispered along the ground ahead of me as the maid came to a stop. I bowed slightly as she turned to me. I hadn't looked her in the face since she'd greeted me right outside the garden gates.
"Is everything alright, Miss Bridget?"
"I'm just a little nervous, ma'am, to be allowed this opportunity to look after these gardens."
She smiled brightly, the expression folding along a path it often did if the wrinkles on her cheeks were to be believed. "You don't have to worry," she assured me, "The Duke is forgiving and I'm sure you can handle a few flower beds."
I laughed softly as she gave me a wink and a nudge. The expression felt odd on my face. The garden had a rumored 10,000 flower beds. "It's just- such an honor. I can't bring myself to look."
"Well, you can't tend to them if you don't look," she said, laying a comforting hand on my shoulder, "Go on, it's alright."
I lifted my head and turned to take in the sprawling hills of the estate. From here, I couldn't even see the high garden wall of stone I'd passed to enter. It was just flower beds and perfect cobblestone paths as far as the eye could see. Every section was bursting with flowers so colorful they almost looked fake. There was not a wilted bloom or leaf in sight- like every bush was pruned obsessively. A beautifully carved fountain sat close by and I could hear the water babbling. It was in the form of a naked woman, the water pouring from an ampora she held under her arm.
"It's massive," I whispered, speechless.
It's a massacre.
In the novel 'The Cold Duke's Beloved Gardener', Duke Devon was everything you'd hope a romance novel's leading man to be. He was a stoic, beautiful man with hidden depths. He was quiet, intelligent, polite, and kind to his staff. An all-around gentleman.
He even took in lover after lover without coming across as lecherous- he was looking for true love, after all, and missing it by inches each time. Every stolen night was a beautiful, but short-lived, whirlwind. All until he met the woman he really loved but couldn't keep: a commoner named Bridget.
In case you're wondering, that's me. Or, at least, it's me now. I died and was reborn as the heroine of the last novel I'd read in my previous life.
In the novel, the kingdom is one filled with tragedy- there is a deep history of dying mothers, lovers being kept separated, maidens disappearing. Nearly every character has a terribly sad backstory. People blindly oppose true love as it is seen as unlucky.
Devon sets out to win over the nobility with Bridget at his side. He'll stop at nothing to marry her- overcoming and outsmarting any test they set for him. Bridget herself reminds many of the nobles of their lost wives, daughters, and sisters and uncovers their tragic pasts. Once she does this, she comforts them and convinces them to help the Duke's cause.
The childless King is so moved that he adopts her as his daughter at the end of the story. The Duke marries the new princess and becomes the heir apparent. Finally, a happy ending to end the sorrows of the cursed Kingdom.
That's how it went in the book. I get to be a princess, then a queen, with the world's most beautiful man at my side. Just the thought of it makes me sick.
In my past life, I was a bit of a conspiracy theorist when it came to the books I loved. I liked to pick them apart and see what they were really made of. I especially liked terrible implications that changed the story into something darker or more interesting.
In the world of 'The Cold Duke', hanahaki disease exists. For those who don't know, hanahaki disease is a fictional disease where unrequited love manifests physically- as flowers in the sufferer's lungs. The Duke gets it in the latter half of the second act and almost dies right before the climax.
When I'd pointed it out to my friend in my past life, it had been in jest. An implication that the author hadn't thought through that we'd turn into an inside joke.
The various nobility weren't referred to by anything but their title. The Duke's paramours were named, described, and even given interests, just to be cast aside and never mentioned again. None of them were supposed to have died, but it was funny to think that the Duke was some kind of evil mastermind. It was like he was entrenching his opponents in mourning to easily take political power.
It stopped being funny when I was a child in this world and, in a history lesson, learned the names of the nobility.
Not every noble woman who died -sorry, 'disappeared'- was courting the Duke. Many of them were married, some were engaged, and even the ones who weren't didn't want to advertise that they were now 'impure'. One of the girls I remembered from the book never had a public relationship with the Duke at all- not even a friendly one. They must have been meeting in secret.
The ones who the Duke did formally court didn't die while they were with him. The Duke wasn't an idiot. They didn't even die soon after. I could only imagine him stringing them along in secret for months afterwards, making them think he still loved them, only to break their heart- but I was never sure.
I couldn't be sure. Not until I came here.
When I was still tiny, one of the girls from my village had fallen in love with a boy who'd enlisted. She hadn't the chance to confess before he was sent to guard the roads from bandits. She'd been fine with waiting. She was sure he'd accept her love when he came home and that protected her from the flowers. Unfortunately, he never came home. He'd been stuck by a horse and killed in the line of duty. The dead cannot return the love of the living.
I remember peeking into her window after weeks of hopeless begging from her parents. The flowers coming out of her mouth were so colorful they looked fake. They'd had not one wilted stem or leaf.
Now I was sure.
I was in the garden of a serial killer, looking at his victims, and he was going to fall in love with me.
Why would I come, if I suspected he was a monster? Why didn't I run screaming for the King? I was a commoner, and he was a Duke, of course. And, more than that, I wanted him to fall in love with me.
He would pay for every petal, every stem, every mote of pollen. Once he'd suffered to his final breath, I'd do what he'd done to so many girls.
I'd bury him.
Author's Note: This story is based off of the original concept by goryscribbles on twitter. Please go give them some support if you liked this! It's also based off of isekai manga, especially the shoujo-ish subsection with entries like 'My Life As a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!', which is why the title is so long. Please review if you're so inclined!