[“It can’t be…! Whatever you ask… my family…!”]
No matter what… please…!”]
The memories of the maid who followed me were in disarray.
Unlike other memories, the “appearance and voice of the person who ordered her to follow me” remained as faint traces, barely legible.
I watched it over and over again, unable to believe it.
The maid trembled, lying on the ground.
She muttered nonsense words.
Lucerne closed his eyes and leaned deeply in his chair.
A heavy silence filled the chamber.
The atmosphere of the chamber, with its high, dark ceiling, intricately patterned tapestries and decorations on the walls and ceiling, gleaming marble floors, and the touch of delicate embroidery on the crimson cushions, made my head spin.
What was surprising was how well this atmosphere suited Lucerne.
His beautiful appearance, commanding presence, and a face that seemed composed but somehow exhausted, made him the perfect embodiment of an emperor.
When Lucerne seated me in the chair next to his, I felt a slight unease about sitting in such a place.
It was a position where I could clearly see the maids lying on the floor and the knights who had surrounded them.
“Do you really have to read memories in a place like this?” I asked, and Lucerne responded in a matter-of-fact tone.
“As the Emperor, it is only natural for me to administer punishment.
Originally, it should be done in the underground interrogation chamber, but it is not a space that suits your refined tastes.”
The underground interrogation chamber… Just hearing the words made me feel uncomfortable.
I had no choice but to witness Lucerne reading the maid’s memories in a space that overwhelmed me by just looking at it.
After losing in thought for a while, Lucerne spoke.
“The memories have been erased.”
I don’t… no matter how hard I try to recall… I can’t…”
The knight standing by my side pulled the stammering maid away and brought Asilis, who had been lying behind her, forward.
Unlike the other trembling maids who were unable to regain their composure, Asilis was fearful but calm.
Lucerne’s voice was indifferent.
“So it’s resistance.”
“It seems your reaction is different from before, there’s no need to distance yourself.”
“I don’t know.”
As if not expecting much, Lucerne waved his hand and extracted Asilis’s memories.
While they weren’t clear and complete like the previous maids, the atmosphere was different.
[“…No, I won’t… do it…”]
[“Regardless… I have already… to Your Majesty…”]
[“…I made two mistakes…”]
It was a clear refusal.
I didn’t know who approached her or in what manner, but Asilis refused.
I felt both grateful and impressed by the maid’s resistance.
Lucerne seemed to have the same thought, as his previously slightly angry expression softened slightly.
“Maid, it seems you have refused the enemy’s proposal.”
“…That appears to be the case.”
Her tone conveyed uncertainty, as her own memories were partially erased.
Lucerne stroked his chin and raised an eyebrow.
“If I were to command you to bring poison to Astia right now, what would you do?”
I widened my eyes in surprise.
However, Asilis, upon receiving the question, remained calm.
“I would refuse.”
“And why is that?”
“If you were to command me to bring poison to Lady Astia, then that person would not be Your Majesty.”
The corners of Lucerne’s lips curved into a peculiar smile.
“Am I that kind of person?”
Your Majesty would never order the administering of poison to someone like Lady Astia.
If Lady Astia were to threaten Your Majesty’s life, you would willingly sacrifice your own.”
“…Am I that kind of person?”
Asilis replied calmly.
“I am also afraid of the punishment that awaits me.
I remember well what happened when I wronged Lady Astia before.”
The two maids behind me nodded in agreement.
They were Iris and Rosalie.
He extracted the memories of all the maids working in Santuris.
Although the memories were all jumbled, it was not difficult to grasp the overall atmosphere.
Except for Asilis, Iris, and Rosalie, who were victims of manipulation, the rest succumbed to the threats and expressed their willingness to assist in my assassination.
Lucerne divided the group of maids into two.
“Imprison all those who succumbed to the enemy’s persuasion in the underground dungeon.
For those who did not, reward them and allow them to continue working in Santuris.
Dispatch knights to protect the individual maids and their families and ensure their safety, as we have no way of determining who made what threats.”
“Yes! Long live Emperor Santuris Lucerne Stria!”
The knights swiftly surrounded the maids and formed a line.
As the door opened and the maids attempted to escape, it happened.
Lucerne, as if suddenly remembering, opened his mouth in an elegant manner and extended his right hand.
“Except for this one.”
“Just a moment, Lucerne!”
“Ah! Your, Your Majesty!”
The maid who had poured poison into my teacup let out a final scream and turned into a cloud of black dust, scattering into the air.
The rope that had bound her slackened and fell to the ground.
The faces of the maids being dragged away displayed a mixture of emotions.
“We cannot leave someone who brought poison into Santuris alive.”
After all the maids had left, the chamber fell into silence.
Another person died because of me.
I thought I had prevented it, but I felt hollow.
“Did we… have to kill her?”
It was a firm answer.
“This is the way I have survived.
It has kept me alive for a long time, and it will continue to do so in the future.”
Lucerne, who had been looking at the door of the chamber, slowly shifted his gaze towards me.
His eyes, usually as solid as a mountain, trembled unsettlingly.
His face was filled with confusion, worry, and unease.
“Are you… okay?”
I shook my head.
It pained me to hear his words of concern for me, even though I knew that I was not Astia.
I wished I could be deeply hated and kept at a distance.
It saddened me that Lucerne, who was not particularly affectionate or cold, still worried about me.
“If I had not trained the maids so harshly, they might have all succumbed to the threats.
It’s because the maids closest to you were resilient that the assassination attempt was carried out so poorly.”
Lucerne’s gaze on my forehead felt piercingly cold.
But I couldn’t help the ache in my heart.
After staring at me for a while, Lucerne let out a deep sigh.
“By the way, this is a serious matter.
My sister’s methods are becoming bolder and bolder.”
“Is it Collis again?”
“All the maids’ memories were jumbled, and she never appeared.
That’s why I’m even more certain.
Only she can wield such magic in the Empire.”
I glanced at Lucerne sideways.
His face was filled with confusion.
It seemed as if there was something heavier and more burdensome weighing him down than fatigue.
“Collis is as terrifying as she is intelligent.
For someone like her to handle things so carelessly implies that she is in a hurry.
It’s difficult to accept that she would go so far as to expose her vulnerabilities.”
I recalled what Lucerne had said to me earlier.
“This is the way I have survived.”
If that’s the case, then the person Lucerne should have killed first was Collis.
However, she happened to be someone he considered special, second only to Astia.
I couldn’t simply apply his survival method to someone who couldn’t be treated so casually.
Lucerne’s face contorted in pain.
* * *
After sending Hyerim back to her room and returning to his bedroom, Lucerne collapsed into the chair.
His body felt heavy and fatigued.
His hand trembled as he swept his hair back.
An attempted poisoning.
No matter how venomous Collis might be, Lucerne had never expected her to attempt an assassination so boldly in his presence.
Thankfully, he had quickly realized it.
If he had been slightly slower, if even a single drop of that poison had entered Hyerim’s body, she would have perished from its effects.
If that had happened, if Hyerim had suffered in agony and taken her last breath…
It felt suffocating, as if my throat was closing up.
I tore off the buttons around the collar of my clothes.
With a soft clink, a fallen button rolled on the floor.
It revealed a long scar that extended from my neck to my chest.
Even with my clothes torn, I still struggled to breathe properly.
The thought that Hyerim might have been harmed was enough to make me feel like I was going to die.
Even though everything had been resolved, my heart continued to pound fiercely.
Cold sweat streamed down, and I felt a throbbing pain in my head.
I felt like I was losing my mind.
It was a sensation I had experienced before.
When was it? As I tried to recall my memories, Astia’s face came to mind.
Yes, back then.
It was exactly like this when Astia was dying in front of Lucerne.
The feeling of breathlessness, the tightness in my chest, the headache…
Back then… I was certainly…
As Lucerne thought back to when Astia fell ill, he froze in place.
“What on earth…?”
At that time, Lucerne had been afraid.
He had been angry.
He had felt guilt.
Exactly like today.
No, perhaps the fear, anger, and guilt he felt today were even stronger than back then.
Back then, he had been afraid and didn’t know what to do, yet he could turn away and distance himself from Astia.
But now, he couldn’t be any further away than a distance he could immediately rush to at the sound of Hyerim’s surprised cry.
Back then, he had been angry at the world that had caused Astia’s life to end, and he had wanted to destroy the world.
But now, he was on the verge of destroying not only the world but himself as well.
Back then, he had felt the weight of guilt for dimming Astia’s spark of life himself.
But now, simply knowing that Hyerim had been near a poisoned cup made him feel like a sinner.
Why? Even though he was fully aware that the person by his side now wasn’t Astia, why did he feel the same, if not stronger, emotions than before? Was it because their faces looked alike? He knew better than anyone that it wasn’t the case.
“This doesn’t make sense.
The voice in Lucerne’s head, which had been bothering him every day, suddenly spoke out.
I told you so.
You should have admitted it long ago.”
No, that couldn’t be true.
There was no way.
But if it wasn’t that, then how could he explain these feelings? Lucerne muttered in disbelief.
“Could it be… that I love Hyerim even more than I loved Astia?”
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