As the sun slowly set in the evening, Calib took the children and returned.
The bustling garden fell silent.
Only Lucerne, I, and a few others remained, but everyone was silent.
I dug smaller holes on one side of the garden.
As the holes lined up, Lucien reached out with a fist-sized basket.
It was a basket filled with black apple seeds.
My heart raced, and everything felt distant as if my body and soul had separated.
I felt dizzy.
Seeing clean apple seeds after 18 years brought both joy and overwhelming emotion, making my nose tingle.
With trembling hands, I received the basket and placed a few apple seeds in each hole.
Will these grow into real apple trees? I hope they become large apple trees with plenty of apples.
I want to pick apples with the children.
I should also personally slice the apples.
With expectations not much different from when I was young, I planted the seeds and slowly covered them with soil.
I filled the last hole with soil and tapped the earth with a trowel.
Sitting on the ground, I wiped the sweat off my face with my dirt-covered backhand.
I had put in the effort, but now that I was done, I realized the spots where I planted the seeds were uneven.
I couldn’t help but laugh.
It seems being an expert at something is not as easy as it looks.
Anyway, Hyerim’s childhood wish had finally come true.
I thought I would feel refreshed, but it wasn’t as satisfying and joyful as I had imagined.
Perhaps it was because it was harder than I thought or because there were no visible results.
Somehow, I felt more melancholic than before I started planting the seeds.
Lucerne, who had been standing guard behind me, quietly approached.
He knelt down on one knee across from me and reached out towards the area where I had planted the last seed.
He seemed hesitant, twisting his lips or tilting his head.
After a while, a faint blue light emitted from the tip of Lucerne’s finger and penetrated the soil.
Shortly after, a green sprout emerged from the soil, slowly raising its head.
I was astonished and exclaimed in admiration, “Lucerne…!”
As the leaves of the sprout grew from one to two, and from two to three, Lucerne lowered his hand and dispelled the magic.
He let out a deep sigh.
I’m not familiar with this type of magic.
This is the extent of what I can do.”
“No, no! Don’t apologize.
It’s amazing!” I replied, filled with reverence, as I alternated my gaze between Lucerne and the sprout.
Despite his clumsiness, he had attempted magic for my sake, and now he had made the sprout grow.
I was grateful for everything he had done.
I felt more excited than when I had just planted the seeds.
“Thank you, Lucerne.
“Does it feel a bit better now?”
“Yes, of course.”
Instead of answering, Lucerne raised his left hand, and the maids and attendants who were standing behind him stepped back with measured steps.
Now, only Lucerne and I remained in the garden.
In the gradually darkening landscape, I blinked and looked at Lucerne.
He waved his hand, creating round beads of light.
The beads floated towards the young apple trees that had yet to bear fruit and hung from the branches like apples.
Oh my goodness.
I burst into a soft laughter.
It’s much more beautiful than a real apple tree.
You are truly a compassionate person.”
“In the empire, you are the only person who can say that to me.”
“It’s an honor.”
I smiled, folding the corners of my eyes.
Lucerne was someone who delighted in my smile, and I expected him to be pleased when he saw my smile again this time.
However, his expression as he looked at me was unfamiliar.
I tilted my head.
“It’s not me who has something going on.
Why do you have such an expression? You said you wanted to plant an apple tree from your childhood.
I wanted to fulfill your wish.”
“If I fulfill your wish, of course, you should naturally be pleased.”
“Yes, I am pleased.
Thanks to you.”
“No, today you didn’t seem pleased at all.”
Surprised by his unexpected words, I touched both of my cheeks.
Naturally, I couldn’t tell what expression I had on my face by touching it.
I fumbled for a response.
“No, I am pleased.”
“No, the face you make when you look at the children, whom you consider to be like your own life, with joy and the face you had today was clearly different.”
“Could you have seen it wrong? I really…”
The scattered soil and black apple seeds on the ground came to mind.
It wasn’t possible not to be happy now that I had picked them up and put them back in their rightful places.
I tried to smile, but my lips trembled for some reason.
The corners of my eyes felt warm.
Lucerne lowered his head.
“There’s no way I could have seen it wrong.
I’ve been looking at no one but you all day.”
I burst into laughter at his nonchalant and sweet words.
Only then did Lucerne’s expression soften.
“…Now you seem pleased.”
“Really, I can’t understand how someone can be so kind.”
Lucerne coughed awkwardly, and I looked at the seedling he had grown again.
After a long time, the issue that had tormented and troubled me in my dreams had finally been resolved, but why didn’t I seem happy? I thought I should be happy, and it seemed like a joyous occasion.
A soft voice gently tapped on my heart.
“I planted the apple tree because you wanted it, but did you truly want to plant an apple tree? Were you only looking at the apple trees with that expression all this time because you wanted to plant one when you were young?”
It wasn’t that I desperately wanted to plant an apple tree.
It wasn’t a lingering regret for not being able to do it either.
Initially, I just needed a story to engage Lucerne.
But… why was it always an apple tree? Why did I persistently long for apples?
Among numerous painful memories, the apple had caused the most wounds.
Because I wanted to heal those wounds by teasing Lucerne, who loved me.
Because I wanted to be comforted.
Only then did I realize that while planting the apple tree, I had wanted to cry.
I thought that the children and Lucerne’s love compensated for my difficult past.
But in the end, it wasn’t Hyerim who was comforted and loved.
No one had told the seven-year-old Hyerim, who was huddled inside me, that it had been tough back then.
The wounded Hyerim received no consolation, and no one wondered how she was living.
They didn’t even know she existed.
I felt like an invisible being.
It was the feeling of being loved yet not truly loved.
While stealing Astia’s abundant life, I couldn’t find satisfaction in myself.
I burst into tears and laughed.
“Lucerne, you’re truly too kind.”
Lucerne took a step back, his face darkening.
“…I apologize if I’ve overstepped.”
“It’s not because you’ve overstepped.
I hesitated for a moment, and then gently opened my arms.
It felt embarrassing and unfamiliar, but I was confident that Lucerne loved me, so he wouldn’t reject me.
With determination, I gathered the courage to speak up.
“I’m sorry, but would you hug me just once?”
Lucerne’s face contorted strangely, as if he had heard something he couldn’t believe.
Did I say something unnecessary?
Fear took hold of me, and I hunched my shoulders.
“Is it not possible?”
“No, it’s not like that.”
In a flash, Lucerne’s body seemed to glow, and he swiftly approached me, kneeling on the ground and half-rising.
With my outstretched arms, I grabbed onto the hem of Lucerne’s clothes, leaning forward and pressing my cheek against his chest adorned with various insignias and decorations.
“Was that also part of your martial arts? Suddenly getting close like this?”
I don’t use it often, but… it’s a useful technique for surprise attacks or assassinations.”
In response to Lucerne’s remark, befitting of a tyrant, I let out a wry chuckle.
“You’re so like yourself.”
Why are you suddenly acting like this?”
Half-heartily raising his arms, Lucerne couldn’t embrace me nor push me away.
Finding his awkwardness endearing, I deliberately held onto his clothes even tighter.
“I’ll be honest with you.
I’m scared of you.
Not because I’m afraid you’ll kill me or intimidate me, but because you treat me so well, because you move me several times a day.
Because of you, I’ve become insatiably greedy.
I keep wanting more than what I believed would be enough.”
Lucerne’s eyes widened.
His entire imposing frame trembled, and his azure irises swirled restlessly.
He truly couldn’t lie.
“I… have said everything I could.”
Lucerne, whose lips trembled for a while, spoke with a voice that even I could hear was shaking.
“I can’t believe you’re asking me to hug you.
Since becoming an adult, I’ve hardly worried about being killed by someone, but with you, I feel like you could kill me and still survive.
If you want, I would gladly die.”
“I don’t have such thoughts.”
After pressing my cheek against the rough fabric and exhaling deeply, I took a long breath.
“I’m sorry for not expressing myself clearly.
You said I didn’t seem pleased, but I truly was.
Thank you so much.”
If you say so, then I suppose it’s true.”
My shoulders and back felt warm.
Lucerne’s large hands tightly wrapped around my back.
It was a different weight and strength from when the children hugged me, and I was surprised by it.
My heart pounded.
Lucerne called my name, but he didn’t continue speaking, leaving the words hanging in the air.
After a while, when it began to feel awkward to be embraced by Lucerne, he let out a sigh and uttered a single phrase.
“…You’ve been through a lot.”
For a moment, I thought my heart had stopped.
Unable to say anything, my eyes blinked, and tears unknowingly streamed down my face.
No one had ever told me those words.
Though it was a brief sentence, both “up until now” and “you’ve been through a lot” were new to me.
I knew it wasn’t a statement based on knowledge of what I had experienced, but to me, it was as sweet as rain in a drought.
Lucerne’s hand pulling me closer to him tightened its grip on my shoulder.
“What happened to you in your childhood, how a person with amnesia remembers the apple tree, and now you’re in my embrace… It’s a story that no one has ever given me.
Although I can’t know what you’ve been through, it felt like a sweet drop of water in the midst of a desert.”
“It’s overwhelming how everything recently feels so chaotic.”
“But since you came to me, nothing else matters.
I promise that no one will ever hurt you again, as long as you wish it.
I will always make you smile and live happily.”
Lucerne emphasized the phrase “as long as you wish it.”
His voice seeped into my parched heart.
He pushed away the sadness, depression, and loneliness that filled every crack and filled himself in.
The negative emotions escaped through tears.
It felt like my whole body was melting away.
“Thank you, I don’t know how to express this feeling.”
“You’re expressing it just fine.”
Lucerne looked up at the sky.
“…The moon seems lonely.”
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