After a long silence, Lucerne finally opened his eyes and spoke in a low voice, almost like a murmur.
“If you were to extend your hand to me as you are doing now, I would willingly accept any scars.”
“What are you talking about? Are you some kind of pervert?”
“In some ways, even more than that.”
I pulled my hand away from Lucerne’s grip, feeling his warmth lingering on my skin.
I held it against my own chest, trying to calm the rapid beating of my heart.
“Anyway, I apologize.
It was a misunderstanding on my part, and I shouldn’t have been so careless in my actions.
I promise I won’t do anything like that again.
I’m truly sorry for causing you any harm.”
“It didn’t hurt me, and I didn’t feel bad, so there’s no need for you to apologize.”
“I still want to apologize.
Lucerne glanced out the window and let out a small sigh.
“Thank you, Astia.
Because of you, I find myself wanting to delay my decision.
But that shouldn’t be the case… No matter what lies ahead, please remember that my world has changed since you came to the imperial castle.”
“Decision? What are you suddenly talking about? What’s going to happen?”
At the sudden remark, I widened my eyes and asked again, but Lucerne shook his head.
“You’ll find out soon.
I don’t want to tell you just yet.”
Go inside and rest.”
“Wait a minute!”
“If you have any troubling dreams, let me know.
I will crush them.”
Lucerne raised a brow, kissed the back of my hand, and then turned and disappeared into his bedroom.
I couldn’t help but stare at the door that swallowed him.
What did he mean by “decision”? What is going to happen?
* * *
After parting ways with Astia, Lucerne returned to the bedroom and stood in the center of the dark room for a long time.
He flinched like a broken doll, and it took a while before he mustered the courage to raise his hand and cover his cheek.
“Oh, sorry for the misunderstanding.
I’m so sorry.”
“I’ll apologize anyway.”
How many times had she apologized for slapping his cheek? It wasn’t like Astia to feel guilty or remorseful for slapping Lucerne.
His chest tightened, and he found it difficult to catch his breath.
Deliberately, he puffed out his chest and took a deep inhale, then exhaled slowly.
He feared that the intense emotions swirling in his heart would spill out with each breath.
It was becoming harder to deny it now.
The changed Astia, who had lost her memory, was endearing.
The mere thought of her rejecting and despising him as she had before caused a sharp ache in his heart.
It was as if he had fallen into a vast barrel of sweet honey.
Even though he knew that drowning in honey would suffocate and lead to his demise, he couldn’t extract his foot.
The sweeter Astia treated him, the more he couldn’t resist, even knowing that her regained memories would cause him immense pain.
In this way, he wished to live eternally with the memory-less Astia.
However, Astia, the main culprit who entangled Lucerne in honey, wanted to turn honey into poison.
“Whoever I am… Will you still love me?”
The anxious voice echoed in Lucerne’s mind, never forgotten.
Astia had pleaded, her heart breaking, to be loved even if she regained her memories and returned to her original self, completely different from the current Astia.
Astia must have desired to regain her memories and revert to her true identity.
And why wouldn’t she? Lucerne couldn’t fathom the experience of losing one’s memories, but he was certain it would bring her unhappiness.
She must have felt frustrated, unable to recall so many things, wondering what kind of person she truly was.
While he understood her yearning, he couldn’t help but dislike it.
He wished for her to remain without her memories, forever tied to him.
He wanted her to forget her past, forget her ex-husband Isaac whom she had originally loved, and forget that Lucerne was the enemy who had taken the lives of her parents.
He wanted her to continue living by his side, just as she did now—laughing, calling him affectionate names, confessing her love, and sharing tender kisses.
However, Lucerne’s desire to keep Astia with him wasn’t solely for her sake.
He knew that as time passed without her memories, she would wear that sorrowful expression he had seen before more frequently.
She had once said that there would be no greater hell for Lucerne than that.
Three years ago, upon discovering that Astia was suffering from a fatal illness, Lucerne had desperately sought a cure.
Astia had expressed her wish to die quickly and be reunited with her ex-husband Isaac, but Lucerne had refused, resorting to rather coercive methods in his attempts to save her.
Unfortunately, the forced treatments had only worsened her condition.
Astia had reacted with an unsettling happiness in that moment.
“Hahaha! Thank you, Lucerne.
Thanks to you, I will be able to die sooner and join Isaac! The day will come when I will thank you.”
The shock of that moment remained etched in Lucerne’s memory, indelible and haunting.
Although the details of how Astia, who was once gravely ill, managed to recover from her illness were unknown to Lucerne, it was nothing short of a miracle that she had regained her health at the cost of her memories.
She had already gone through such a trial once before.
Lucerne’s insatiable desire had caused Astia immense pain.
He couldn’t allow history to repeat itself.
If there was something Astia truly desired, he believed it was his responsibility to grant it.
Lucerne’s sister was a scholar who specialized in magic and studied at the Magic Tower.
Although lacking in mana, she possessed knowledge of efficiently utilizing limited magical abilities.
Unlike Lucerne, who focused on offensive and defensive magic, his sister excelled in various secondary branches of magic, including memory-related spells.
Lucerne reached out to his sister and requested her presence at an upcoming imperial event.
He contemplated asking her if there was a way to restore Astia’s lost memories.
However, he knew that his sister harbored deep animosity towards Astia and might not readily grant his request.
“…Even if it proves difficult, I must persuade her.”
Because it was for Astia.
Because Astia was what mattered most.
Even if the consequences led to Astia regaining her memories and despising Lucerne once again, even if it irreversibly shattered his own heart.
He had to find a way to retrieve her memories.
He couldn’t afford to make the same mistakes again.
* * *
It was a peaceful day.
Adjusting to life in the Imperial Palace, I spent my spare time reading novels, just like when I lived as Hyerim.
I started with “Jewel Warrior Julia Robot” and “Romeo and Juliet”.
As time went on, I grew tired of apples, and instead of apples, vermilion persimmons adorned the table.
I had never eaten persimmons in real life, and I was captivated by the taste and fragrance of this unfamiliar fruit.
Lucerne, the Emperor, was busy day and night, so we didn’t have many opportunities to see each other.
However, the ladies-in-waiting treated me with kindness, the children were delightful, and Caleb showered me with affection like a father.
Neither my aunt nor my childhood haunted my dreams anymore.
I should have been content, but at times, a sense of emptiness and anxiety crept in.
Lucerne had mentioned making a decision and something happening, but for a long time, nothing seemed to be changing, and there were no signs of any imminent developments.
What could it be?
I asked Lucerne multiple times, but he consistently refused to answer.
After his evasive responses, I often found myself sitting in a daze.
Perhaps because I had never pondered such complex matters before, my thoughts frequently hit a roadblock.
This was especially true when I gazed at the apple trees.
Today, as usual, I found myself entranced by the apple trees in the garden.
The soft call of my name brought me back to reality, and I turned my head.
There, beside me, Lucerne was kneeling on one knee.
The space between his smooth, furrowed brows was narrow.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“What are you doing here at this hour? Isn’t it your busy time?” I replied.
“Dipeume reported that you weren’t feeling well, so I came to check on you.”
“What’s wrong with me? Uh, he said everything was fine during the examination this morning.”
That’s the problem.”
“Are you saying that having no problem is a problem?”
Dipeume, who was standing behind me, nodded in agreement.
“There’s nothing wrong with you, but whenever you come to the garden, you seem to relax.
Just in case, I informed His Majesty.”
Lucerne gazed at me with a serious expression.
“What’s the matter? You always seemed fine during meals and in the mornings and evenings.
But now that I look at you closely, something is definitely off.
You don’t notice me until I kneel here.
Do you have a fondness for gardens? Or are they causing you any discomfort?”
The ladies-in-waiting, who were a short distance away from the tea table, stiffened in surprise.
They immediately fell to the floor, their faces filled with anxiety, as if pleading for forgiveness.
I shook my head.
“The ladies-in-waiting have nothing to do with it.
It’s just that they behave so quietly and politely after you leave that it becomes dull to the point of being uninteresting.”
Lucerne pressed further.
“Then what is it?”
“…I don’t know, honestly,” I replied, looking back at the apple tree.
My answer was vague, and I was about to ask another question, but realizing that I wouldn’t receive an answer anyway, I let out a deep sigh.
Observing my reaction, Lucerne murmured as he followed my gaze through the apple trees, “…It’s not like it’s triggering memories of the apple tree, is it? I hope it’s not bringing up thoughts of your late husband…”.
How could he even entertain such nonsensical thoughts about memories I don’t have?
“Don’t worry, nothing comes to mind,” I assured him.
He let out a sigh as if he wanted to relax his shoulders, but Lucerne kept a watchful eye on me, pretending to be unaffected.
I smiled slightly and spoke on his behalf.
“That’s a relief, isn’t it?”
Only then did Lucerne relax his stiffened shoulders.
“…It’s not memories that came back, so what could the problem be? Is it because the apple fell off the table? Or is it because the apples on the apple trees in the garden haven’t ripened yet?”
“Well… it might be because the apples haven’t ripened yet.
I’m not sure.”
“Because the apples haven’t ripened yet,” Lucerne’s face looked strange.
It wasn’t a happy or sad expression, but rather a peculiar one.
“Wait a few more days.
My sister will be here soon.
She’s much better at making plants grow with magic than I am.
It’s pathetic that I can’t even perform this spell despite having received the blessings of mana.
But don’t worry.
When my sister arrives, if it’s her, she’ll…”
Lucerne paused for a moment and let out a sigh.
“She’ll grant what you want…”
Even though he said he would grant what I wanted, he didn’t seem pleased at all.
Instead, he had a face that didn’t want to grant what I desired.
Why is that?
“Are you displeased because I want the apples on the apple tree to ripen?”
“That’s not it.”
“Then is it because you don’t want to grant my request? Like you find it burdensome to ask your sister for something.
If that’s the case, you don’t have to force yourself to fulfill my request.
I don’t desperately need the apples either.”
“No, it’s not that.
“Then why do you have such an expression?”
Lucerne hesitated and seemed to be thinking, then quietly asked.
“Astia, what does the apple tree mean to you?”
“What do you mean, what does it mean?”
I widened my eyes at the sudden question.
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