Red Soup

The grooming didn’t end until the evening sun had set.
The ladies-in-waiting led me to the drawing room on the castle’s first floor, and as if their task was complete, they bowed properly and disappeared.
I didn’t even bother with a formal greeting this time, probably because I found it amusing.

Regardless, I swiftly opened the parlor door and stepped inside.

“Hey, guys! Mom’s here!”

The children, who had been casually seated on the sofa, sprang to their feet upon seeing me.
I burst into laughter at the sight of their quick reaction—it was both odd and endearing to watch them spring up after lounging about.

“Geo! Marley! Rie! Seti!”

“Wow! Mom, Mom!” Marley rushed in first and hugged her voluminous skirt.
She rubbed her face against the fabric a few times, and a slight discomfort showed on her reddened face due to the rough embellishments.

“Oh dear, what’s the matter? Does it irritate your face?” I asked, concerned.

“Haha, sorry.
That person gave me this extravagant dress,” I explained.

“Phew, I prefer the clothes you wore before,” Marley grumbled.

“Now, Marley, don’t say that.
This is a gift from a generous uncle,” I replied.

Marley grumbled again before returning to the parlor sofa, her eyes gleaming as her other children approached.

“Mom, you look so beautiful! You shine like a star,” they praised.

“Indeed, it’s lovely!” I smiled.

“That’s right! Mom’s red skirt is incredibly beautiful.
You look like a princess,” one of the children exclaimed.

“You’re all beautiful too.
Geo and Rie are like princes, and Marley and Seti are like princesses.
We should all express our gratitude to that person later,” I suggested.

“Yes! I will too! I’ve always wanted to try on a princess dress.
I really, really love it!” one of the children exclaimed excitedly.

The kids playfully twirled their little pink skirts around the drawing room.
Marley joined in, despite her initial grumpiness, and soon the room was filled with laughter and liveliness.

Geo, who had remained by my side, glanced at my attire and then at his own.
He asked, “By the way, Mom, are these clothes expensive?”

Why do you ask?” I inquired.

“Ah, well… I’m grateful for everything, especially for being allowed to sleep, but receiving such an expensive gift makes me feel a bit uneasy,” he confessed.

“I understand how you feel,” I replied, acknowledging his concern.

I hadn’t given it much thought either since Lucerne doesn’t talk about it much, but how much does it cost to support five military families? I couldn’t even fathom the amount, considering the lifestyle we lead.

Geo let out a deep sigh, his tiny lips forming a pensive expression.
“Mom, you always told me not to be indebted to others.
What should I do this time? Can I repay it by working hard?”

“Geo…” I paused, unsure of how to respond.

 Memories of my seven-year-old self, begging my aunt and feeling indebted, flashed before me.

“I don’t know if I can repay you…”

Geo’s face overlapped with my younger self, desperately pleading with my aunt.

 “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

“You don’t even know who took care of you and provided for you! Do you have any idea how much it costs to provide for you? Tsk! The old saying holds true.
I shouldn’t have taken in someone with black hair.”

“I will work hard and repay you! Please, don’t kick me out, please!”

“Of course, you have to repay me! Once you start working, you should contribute fully to support the family.
Do you understand?”

 I recalled the hardships I endured due to my parents’ abandonment and disappearance as a child.
But why was Geo carrying such a heavy burden when his mother was alive?

Astia, this wicked woman.

I lowered myself and embraced Geo tightly.
“Are you worried about repaying it all?”

“Yes… You always taught me not to live in debt to others…” Geo responded softly.

“Don’t worry, I, as your mother, will take care of the debt.
So Geo, don’t dwell on debts or money.”

“But… It will be difficult for you alone.”

“I’m an adult, so it’s okay.
Geo, on the other hand, is still a child.
Just have fun and be happy like Rie and Seti, that’s all I ask,” I assured him.

Geo’s face lit up, as bright as when he drank milk, and his cheeks turned a rosy shade.
“Mom… thank you.
Actually, I really like the clothes I’m wearing today.
They’re soft and have no holes.
Just like you said, I’ll be happy.”

“You deserve to be very happy, Geo.
Your happiness gives me energy,” I replied.

Geo nodded vigorously, speaking in a small, perhaps slightly embarrassed voice.
“My mother has become an angel…”

I couldn’t help but giggle at his genuinely touched expression.
While I felt sorry for Astia, it was a secret delight to know that Geo liked me more than the original Astia.
Holding Geo’s small, warm body in my arms, I cherished the moment.

The rest of the children came running, asking for hugs.
Their sudden clinginess almost made me lose my balance.

Amidst laughter, chatter, and the shared warmth with the children, someone knocked on the drawing room door.
After a moment, the door opened, revealing the gentleman who had come to pick up the children when they arrived at the castle.

We quickly stood up and composed ourselves.
The gentleman stood before me, bowing politely.

“You’ve waited a long time, Astia.
My name is Calib, an aide to His Majesty the Emperor.
Dinner is ready, and I have been instructed to bring you,” he informed.

“Yes,” I replied, but I hesitated to move.
“Can I have dinner with the children?” I asked, hopeful.

I thoroughly enjoyed the lively meal at Astia’s house and didn’t want to be separated from the children after being apart for half a day.
The children and I exchanged murmurs and looked at each other, curious about what would happen next.

Calib, noticing our reactions, spoke up without a trace of embarrassment.
“If you’d like, the children can join.”

Our faces lit up, and we exchanged broad smiles.
“That’s good! I’ll go with them!” I exclaimed.

“Wow, we get to have dinner with our mom?”

“Yeah, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to eat with you, Mom!”

“So exciting! Eating with Mom! Ahahang!” one of the children chimed in.

We walked hand in hand, laughing as we strolled around the drawing room.
It was a sight that anyone would find enchanting, as if we were people with flowers adorning our hair.
It was only when Calib cleared his throat that we quickly released our hands and composed ourselves.
Even our slightly dizzy state from spinning around added to the joyous atmosphere.
With pleasant glances and giggles, we followed Calib all the way to the banquet hall.

The banquet hall was incredibly spacious, with a ceiling that stretched up to the second floor.
A long table, large enough for twenty or thirty people to dine simultaneously, adorned the room.
The table sparkled under the illumination of a dazzling chandelier.

Enormous floral arrangements graced the tables, windows, pillars, and walls.
The fragrance of the flowers overwhelmed me, causing a slight dizziness.
Not only was I captivated, but the children also gaped in awe.

 Rie, true to his nature, stood quietly with a regal expression, resembling a genuine prince.
Marley’s reaction to Rie’s appearance was particularly astonishing.

Caleb approached Lucerne, who was seated at the head of the table, and whispered something in his ear.
It was only then that Lucerne seemed to notice our presence.
He handed the stack of papers he was holding to Calib and stood up.

“…You came together,” he remarked.

“Why wouldn’t we come together?” I replied.

The children timidly hid behind me, even Rie, who was usually confident, taking a step back.
Lucerne slowly moved away from his seat and pulled out a chair at the table.

“Of course, you can have whatever you want,” he said, brushing his chest and patting the children’s backs.

“Now, it’s time for dinner.
Shall we take our seats?”

“Yes,” I nodded.

Caleb skillfully called each child by name and assigned them a place at the table.
Once all the children had settled, I took a seat in the chair Lucerne had prepared for me.

The children were mesmerized by the sight of the hot food in front of them.

“Wow, the bread is warm!”

“Oops, hey, this is so soft.
Is there something inside?”

“The bread is chewy!”

“Yes, the bread is chewy, like jelly.
And there’s this kind of bread too…”

Starting with the brave and impatient Seti, the children enthusiastically dug into the bread, paying no mind to Lucerne or the etiquette of dining at the head table.

As they expressed their admiration for the softness, sweetness, chewiness, and warmth of the food, smiles never left their faces.
My heart melted at the sight.
I was overjoyed to see the children, who had been accustomed to eating hard bread and drinking lukewarm water, now enjoying warm and delicious food.

Within a day of entering the imperial palace, I couldn’t help but think that it was a good decision to follow Lucerne.
He nonchalantly tore his portion of bread with his hands, seemingly unconcerned about whether the children were eating or not.

I gazed at Lucerne with gratitude in my eyes.
“Thank you for allowing me to eat with the children.”

Lucerne, still locking eyes with me, pursed his lips and asked in a brief manner, “…Are you happy?”

“Of course! Just look at the children’s faces.
Don’t you feel fulfilled just by seeing their joy?” I replied.

“Right.” The corners of Lucerne’s mouth subtly twitched as he glanced back at the children.
I patiently waited to see if he would say anything more, but he remained silent, his expression unchanged, and focused on his meal again.

His eyes, cast down upon the bread, and the long black eyelashes that rested gently on his skin were truly beautiful.
If only he would smile a little, his face would become even more magnificent, but it seemed like a rare sight.

After the pre-meal bread, the soup was served.
A clear soup was placed in front of Lucerne.
It was adorned with a sprinkle of gold powder, exuding a luxurious aura at first sight.
Unlike mine, it carried a savory aroma.

As before, the children admired the warm and silky texture of the soup.

“Hey, this is hot, hot! How did they make it hot when there’s no fire?”

“Just a while ago, someone came out of that door over there.
There must be a fire there.”

“Ooh! Oww! It’s so hot!”

“Is Seti okay? Here, drink some water.
When you eat something hot like this, you have to blow on it gently.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.”

However, unlike the children, I couldn’t find any amusement in the situation.

“…Eh, is this what I’m supposed to eat?”

In front of me was a bowl of red soup that closely resembled raw blood.
It didn’t have a bloody smell, but it was repulsive.
The sensation made me want to vomit.

Why was it only my soup that seemed so strange? I glared at Lucerne with resentful eyes.

Lucerne raised his spoon and casually remarked, “Didn’t you mention that you liked the color red?”


Astia’s favorite color was red.

Only then did I realize that the dress Lucerne had prepared for me was red, and that all the flowers adorning the dinner table were red roses.

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