I stretched myself completely and contemplated what I should do.
Geo was right.
Lucerne had bought me to the castle because he desired it, but it was I who had asked him to bring the children he didn’t want as an additional favor.
I felt no shame in accepting the favor just as they were.
Though I wasn’t certain of what I could accomplish, it was my duty to give my best effort.
What can I do for Lucerne?
The advice of the ladies-in-waiting resurfaced in my mind. “You managed to get through today unscathed, but you should be more cautious next time.
You need to understand the situation.”
“If you want to survive, do not defy his will.”
“Understand the situation, and don’t take offense.”
I also recalled Lucerne’s request.
“Do not forget your promise.”
Can I simply live by Lucerne’s side? Assisting the royal family with their tasks?
I was beginning to regret reading “The Tyrant and the Archmages” even more, but right on cue, the maids opened the door and entered the room.
“Oh, dear Astia.
You are up early,” said Asilis, leading the way, devoid of a smile.
The two maids in the back glanced around the room and at my attire, exchanging whispers with Asilis.
A subtle change flickered in the corner of Asilis’s eyes.
It appears that ‘nothing’ happened last night.”
I tilted my head in confusion, realizing that the maids’ gaze had fixated on my pajamas.
The buttoned-up pajamas were slightly wrinkled, just as the maids had dressed me in them yesterday.
I had been invited to the emperor’s adjacent bedroom, yet I had not been embraced by the emperor.
The fair countenances of the ladies-in-waiting merged with scorn.
“It was to be expected, but it seems true.”
“It appears she was abandoned due to her audacious exploitation of the emperor’s power.”
“Ha! Last night, she deceived us with her absurd claims, and now she appears quite the fool.”
If one were to contemplate Lucerne’s conduct at last night’s dinner, they would understand the veracity of their remarks.
It was amusing how he thought he could turn me into an unloved woman just by picking up things.
Asilis remarked with an arrogant expression.
“From now on, you must be cautious and meticulous in everything you do, so that the sparks don’t ignite and reach us.
Did you understand?”
“If you make a mistake, your family might pay the price with their lives.”
“You brought four children, but perhaps those children will be the first to be sacrificed.
It’s unfortunate to have a mother who doesn’t know how to protect herself.”
The mention of ‘children’ instantly conjured images in my mind.
I forcefully grabbed the wrist of the maid, as she tried to remove my nightgown, and snapped it.
“What is this…?”
I pushed the maid onto the bed and restrained her with my knee against her back.
Living alone at home, the first thing I learned was self-defense.
It wasn’t anything extensive, just a rough understanding I acquired from watching online videos.
I had wondered if it would come in handy when dealing with my aunt, relatives, or the intoxicated customers I encountered during my late-night work shifts.
It wasn’t an exceptional skill, but it proved sufficient to subdue the maid who had been disregarding me, defenselessly giggling, so to speak.
People who underestimate their opponents often leave gaps in their defenses.
The maid, her face buried in the blanket, let out a muffled cry.
Her screams were stifled by the other watching maids, displaying their remarkable professionalism.
From her expression, it seemed to be the first time in her life that she experienced fear from such a violent scene.
The lady-in-waiting beneath me squirmed.
“Ugh, please release me… Astia…!”
“Miss Astia, please refrain from this.”
The ladies-in-waiting I had apprehended and those who had evaded capture bit their lips.
I gazed at the faces of the ladies-in-waiting, finally fixing my eyes on Asilis and spoke in a low voice.
I may have appeared amusing last night because I wasn’t embraced by Lucerne.
But let me explain.
The reason Lucerne didn’t come to me is because he loves me so much that he couldn’t bring himself to touch me at all.”
“Well, that’s… That’s absurd… Opposing the Emperor… In the bedroom…”
“If you’re curious, go ask Lucerne.”
The maids wore puzzled expressions.
It was indeed peculiar that I didn’t receive an embrace from my beloved in the bedroom, but Lucerne’s behavior and my demeanor during yesterday’s meal must have seemed strange.
In a friendly manner, I added a whispered piece of advice.
“I’ll kindly say something to those of you who are so sweet that you disregard me.
Be cautious with your words.
It’s true that I lack a solid foundation, so I’ll give you a considerable benefit of the doubt.
However, unless you want to become nothing but specks of dust in the universe, refrain from laying a finger on my ‘precious.’ Do you understand?”
The maid beneath me nodded tearfully, and I smiled with contentment.
My precious possession.
What I have and what I must protect.
I recalled the children who weren’t my blood relatives but felt more like family than anyone else.
The children who loved me, embraced me, and worried about me.
I may not know much else, but I could never bring myself to curse or harm the children.
On the other hand, the family who gave birth to me and raised me…
They abandoned me, struck me, cursed at me, mistreated me, exploited me, discarded me, and used me.
Perhaps because I had a dream earlier, my aunt’s voice and face vividly resurfaced in my mind.
She laughed and vented her anger through jokes.
“…If you truly wish to curse someone on my behalf, I will permit it.
Sometimes, even I yearn for curses.
I would appreciate it if you could curse on my behalf.”
“What on earth…”
I released my grip on the overwhelmed maid and stood upright.
“Get up quickly.
Apart from the fact that he loves me, I don’t wish to cause any trouble for Lucerne.
The clothing here is lovely, and everything is fine, but I prefer to be on my own.”
I stood with my arms outstretched like a doll, just as I did yesterday.
Each maid assisted in removing the pajamas I was wearing and helped me wash my face and fix my hair, their expressions ranging from fear to disgust to suspicion.
Once the maids finished grooming me at lightning speed, they quickly disappeared.
I settled myself in a chair in the drawing room and patiently waited for Lucerne to wake up.
Wearing a dress and with my hair neatly braided, I contemplated what I could do to assist Lucerne, but I couldn’t come up with a clear answer.
Eventually, I decided to ask Lucerne directly.
It was a lesson I had learned through years of life and part-time work: When in doubt, ask as soon as possible! That way, you avoid unnecessary accidents!
It was then that I came out of the bedroom.
Lucerne must have slept, but he looked clean as if he hadn’t slept.
When he found me sitting in a chair, he widened his eyes in surprise.
Swiftly rising from my seat, I approached Lucerne.
Did you have a pleasant dream last night?”
Why did you wake up so early?”
“I woke up early.”
“Why? Was the bed uncomfortable? I heard that even if you fall asleep early, you tend to wake up around noon because you enjoy sleeping so much.”
Oh, Astia, how fortunate you are.
I’ve always longed for a comfortable sleep.
She lowered her head, forcing the corners of her mouth to rise crookedly.
“No, the bed was the most comfortable thing I’ve ever experienced.
I had a disturbing dream because my life suddenly changed.”
“A dream? What kind of dream dared to disrupt your sleep?”
“…It was a nightmare, but I’m fine now.
It’s a dream I’ve often had, so it’s nothing.”
“I usually have ordinary dreams and don’t wake up.”
If I told him the details of the dream, it would become a dream itself, and it seemed like he wanted to kill her aunt who appeared in the dream.
I felt a great joy seeing him react this way to a dream I hardly ever had.
Even though I knew it was just words, I suddenly felt warmth surrounding me.
I felt like crying and laughing at the same time.
My cheeks were flushed, and I gently brushed them with the back of my hand.
“… … I’m really good, thanks to you.”
“… As I live, there comes a day when I receive your gratitude in the morning.”
“It’s just that I couldn’t tell you yesterday, but there are many things I’m grateful for.
You found the children and me and brought us to the palace, you provided us with comfortable beds, delicious meals, and beautiful clothes.”
“It’s not a big deal to provide all that.”
“Thank you regardless.
By the way, I have something to ask you.”
“What is it?”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Lucerne narrowed his eyes, seemingly not understanding the intention behind the question.
“What do you mean? What do you want to help with?”
“I mean it literally.
Since I’ve been treated so generously, I want to repay it in some way.
If there’s anything I can do, please let me know without hesitation.”
As always, Lucerne didn’t hesitate in his response.
“There is nothing.”
“No… No? Why?”
“Quite literally, there is nothing for you to do here.”
“But… but the imperial palace is spacious, right? At the very least, there must be some gardening that needs tending.
I’m good at cleaning and organizing.
I’m a quick learner and have good attention to detail.”
“The imperial palace is indeed vast, but it is already well staffed.
There is no specific task for you to undertake.”
“Lucerne,” I pleaded.
Lucerne let out an exasperated sigh and furrowed his brow.
“Stop speaking nonsense.
If you truly wish to repay me with kindness, then no matter how challenging or tiring it may be, stay by my side and never run away.
That is what you and your children are meant to do here.”
“Do nothing?” I asked, perplexed.
“… It’s not that there is nothing at all, if you insist on asking,” he responded.
A hint of color returned to my face, and with sparkling eyes, I took a step closer to Lucerne.
“Tell me anything I can do! I will work diligently!”
As I approached, Lucerne instinctively took a step back.
He lowered his head, seemingly embarrassed, and finally met my gaze.
Eat what you desire, and take care of yourself to avoid falling ill.”
All I had to do was eat, sleep, and take care of myself?
My eyes widened in surprise, but what Lucerne added next was even more astonishing.
“Your mere existence, having overcome your illness and being alive, is sufficient.
Just being here within my reach is enough.”
Lucerne paused, as if contemplating something, and then continued, avoiding my gaze.
“… At the very least, I hope yesterday’s experience can be repeated.
It would be wonderful if you could give me that.”
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