The children and I watched with bated breath as Lucerne and Henry engaged in their conversation.
Henry shook his head in disbelief.

Didn’t you come here today to discuss this?” he asked.

“Why did you even come? If you step down from the throne, you can indulge in the luxurious life we’ve prepared for you in the castle.”

“Isn’t it because you’ve done something futile? Your mother and sister are concerned about you, and I rushed here using the teleportation orb,” Henry retorted.

“I can’t recall doing anything foolish.
It appears that you’ve finally come to your senses.”

The man, his tongue tucked cheekily, pointed at me with a tilt of his chin.

“Are you implying that you haven’t done anything useless, even after bringing this before me?” he questioned.

“If you have presbyopia, why don’t you visit an eyeglass store instead of wasting your time here? I’ve heard they have these things called glasses these days that can improve your vision without needing medicine.”

“Even if my eyes were truly blind, I wouldn’t be blind to rubbish.
Garbage smells like garbage,” I retorted.

The mention of the word “trash” sent a jolt through the back of my head.
Criticism was something I despised, but the term “trash” struck a particularly sensitive nerve.

“Lee Hye-rim! Why are you rummaging through the trash like a stray cat? Are you nothing more than trash yourself?” My aunt’s words echoed in my mind, a thorn that had tormented me for far too long.

Not only did I suffer from her cruel words, but also from the children who called me trash.
Filled with a newfound determination, I stepped forward and raised my voice, as if I had shed my old self.

“Hey, who do you think you are, calling people trash?”

Henry’s and the lady’s faces visibly contorted, clearly taken aback by my unexpected reaction.

“It’s truly trashy to prance around with a broken snout,” the man continued.

“In the long run, it’s better to keep your broken mouth shut in front of a scoundrel.
If you stay still, people will assume you’re a bale of rubbish and treat you accordingly,” added the woman.

Lucerne, standing beside them, chuckled, seemingly amused by the situation.

As Lucerne’s laughter blended with my cutting words, Henry’s forehead tensed, veins pulsing.

“You better think twice before uttering such vulgarities.
I’m the kind of person with immense patience, but I have my limits,” he warned.

“I have yet to meet someone who claims to be patient and actually lives up to it,” I defiantly replied.

“Dare you!” Henry shouted, though it was the lady positioned at the back who sprang into action.
With a face resembling that of a goblin, the noble lady strode forward, her hands raised.

Madame, I have endured so many hardships that even an old man with extraordinary endurance would submit.
You can’t hit me with an arm like that of chopsticks.

I locked my gaze on the hand hurtling towards me, swiftly extending my own arm with the intention of seizing the lady’s wrist.
However, her gloved hand halted in mid-air as if obstructed by an invisible barrier.
A vibrant, deep blue glow enveloped the lady, causing her to whimper and strain against the force.
It was Lucerne’s magic at work.

Her ladyship raised her eyes and bellowed, her voice filled with fury.
“Lucerne! Can’t you dismantle this barrier at once?”

“Clean your hands,” Lucerne calmly responded.

“How dare you speak so rudely to His Excellency Duke Henry? Even if you sprinkle water and wipe it away immediately, it won’t be enough to cool down his anger!”

Without offering a verbal reply, Lucerne lifted his finger and gently pushed it forward.
The intensity of the light increased, accompanied by a surge of brightness that propelled the lady backward.

Gritting her teeth, the lady staggered, ultimately standing beside Henry.
She clutched his arm tightly, trembling with anger.

“Lucerne!” she shrieked.

“Thank you for being my parents.
If it were someone else, I would have torn them apart right here…,” Lucerne began, his words elongated.
However, he glanced in my direction and amended his statement.
“No, I would have reduced them to ashes.”

Henry’s and my eyes widened simultaneously.
While they were taken aback by the revelation that their son had contemplated their demise, I was not.
Lucerne had expressed his intention to kill them, but his choice of words indicated that he would incinerate them instead of resorting to violence.
He corrected himself after glancing at me, likely aware of my aversion to bloodshed.

A peculiar sensation coursed through my chest, filling every crevice within me.

The lady clutched Henry’s arm, her trembling intensifying as she let out a piercing scream.
“Lucerne! How could you become like this? You’ve endangered your parents’ lives all because of that lowly girl whose origin remains are unknown! No matter how arrogant and impudent you’ve been, you’ve never stooped to this level!”

“At that time, Astia was not my woman,” Lucerne stated matter-of-factly.

The lady glared at me, her expression puzzled, before turning around and walking away.
I swallowed the fluttering sensations in my throat, trying to suppress the mixture of excitement and joy that twisted like grains of sand in my stomach.

How many times had this happened before? Each time I experienced happiness and excitement in Lucerne’s presence, an uncomfortable unease gnawed at my heart.
It felt as though I were a thief sneaking away with stolen goods, pretending to be oblivious.

Lucerne addressed Henry in a nonchalant tone.
“Aren’t you leaving?”

“Think carefully, Lucerne.
You are the king of the empire.
You should associate with the right people.
I hope you haven’t forsaken countless aristocrats and women from other countries to be with someone like her,” Henry cautioned.

“It’s better to discard useless winds,” Lucerne replied dismissively.

“…Lucerne, don’t underestimate me,” Henry warned, his tone laced with underlying threat.

“If you utter another word, you’ll face the bite of a tiger cub and meet your end,” Lucerne retorted.

With a scoff, Henry turned away.
“I’ll be back soon.”

“Take your time,” Lucerne replied calmly.

Lucerne maintained his stance until Henry and his wife disappeared from sight completely, then he quietly approached and rejoined the children.

* * * * *

Lucerne, having expelled Duke and Duchess Henry from the imperial palace with a menacing air, let out a heavy sigh in his office.
He couldn’t help but feel the thickness of their audacity.
How could they forget the pain they caused him and his sister and shamelessly try to assume the role of “parents”?

During the purge of the rebel faction, Lucerne had harbored a desire to inflict even more brutal punishment upon them.
In fact, he held a stronger grudge against his own parents who had abandoned him and fled than against the traitors who sought to seize the throne.

When the rebellion broke out, Duke and Duchess Henry evacuated the palace, leaving a six-year absence.
From the age of four to ten, Lucerne had no parents by his side during his vulnerable and formative years.
He despised his parents for abandoning him, more so than the traitors who came to claim the throne.

In the imperial palace, a place brimming with bloodshed, slaughter, and political intrigue, the only solace for Lucerne had been his sister, who was twelve years his senior.
She had stood in place of their parents, shielding, nurturing, and raising him.

It was only after the rebellion had been quelled that his father, Henry, and his biological mother, Mirana, returned to the imperial palace.

“You have grown stronger, Lucerne.
I will pass the throne to you,” his father declared.

The imperial family had a long lineage of magic users, and it was customary for the one with the greatest magical prowess among the Emperor’s descendants to ascend to the throne.
However, it was highly unusual for an emperor who had fled and abandoned the palace to willingly abdicate in favor of his son.

Lucerne felt a mix of embarrassment and confusion upon his parents’ sudden return and the bestowal of the Emperor’s crown upon them.
He longed to ask them why they had abandoned him and fled.

But his sister intervened. “You are now the Emperor.
You cannot reveal any weakness.
The rebellion is over.”

“Then I shall kill them, just like the former Emperor who fled before the rebels,” Lucerne retorted bitterly.

“Can you really kill them?” his sister challenged, her words leaving him momentarily speechless.


Upon his sister’s challenging question, young Lucerne couldn’t help but break into tears.
He harbored enough hatred toward his parents to wish for their demise, yet despite his resentment, they were still his parents.
If they were to die and vanish from his life, it would shatter his fervent desire to have them by his side.

He had provided a luxurious palace for Duke and Duchess Henry, ensuring their safety.
They proudly roamed the social sphere, proclaiming themselves as the Emperor’s parents.

It was both irritating and somewhat reassuring.
At least they hadn’t abandoned Lucerne and fled.

However, even with such gestures, there were things that could never be forgiven.

“I don’t care about anything else.
But if you lay a hand on Astia, then…” Lucerne trailed off, his voice filled with an unyielding resolve.

 He would never forgive them.
He would take their lives without a shred of regret, lives that he couldn’t claim in the past.

Images of Henry and his wife hurling insults at Astia resurfaced in Lucerne’s mind, causing his fists to clench tightly.
Soon, he recalled Astia’s response, as she stood her ground and fired back with her words.

That’s just how Astia is,” she had said.

A sinister laugh escaped Lucerne’s lips.
When she directed her sharp words at him, it felt as if his heart was being torn apart.
However, witnessing her fearless demeanor towards others filled him with a sense of pride.

 Perhaps it was because she had lost her memories, which softened her attitude, making it more endearing.

Whatever the reason, it was a welcomed change.

The image of Astia lingered in Lucerne’s thoughts throughout the afternoon.

* * *

Filled with fear, I gently ushered the children away from me and retreated back to my room.
The maids, having witnessed how Lucerne had defended me, seemed to have come to terms with the fact that he cared for me.
Their incessant chatter ceased, and their mouths remained shut like tightly closed clam shells as they prepared for bed.

Once the ladies-in-waiting had left, I found myself unable to sleep.
Instead, I sat on a chair in the drawing room, gazing blankly out of the window.

The opulent clothing, sumptuous food, and luxurious bed were all beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
The room was immaculate, with no stains or blemishes in sight, and both the children and Lucerne showered me with an unimaginable amount of love.

The real Lee Hyerim had led a life that was nothing short of extraordinary.

 I was overjoyed, elated, and filled with excitement, yet a part of my heart ached incessantly.
It was because the happiness I was experiencing should have been Astia’s.
The love being bestowed upon me was meant for her.
And now, I was deceiving everyone.

I felt an immense sense of guilt for taking Astia’s place and cheating both the children and Lucerne.
The joy I felt was tainted by this overwhelming remorse.

Why did you have to die, Astia? It was because of your death that I had to take over your life.

Succumbing to these nonsensical thoughts, I crouched down, feeling the weight of loneliness and the chill that permeated the room.
It felt as if I had been left all alone in the cramped studio room I once called home.

“…It’s funny how it feels just as cold here as it did there.”

“If you’re cold, go sit by the fireplace.”

Startled by Lucerne’s voice, I turned around.
He stood behind me, holding a soft, fluffy white cloak.

“A cloak.
Is it necessary?” he asked

“Yes, it is.
Thank you,”

I extended my arm to receive the cloak and draped it around my shoulders, wrapping myself in its warmth.

As I let the warmth of the cloak envelop me, I realized that the thought I had just entertained was irrational.
This was not the cramped, solitary studio room, and I wasn’t alone anymore.
I had the comfort of knowing that I was surrounded by people who cared for me.
The cloak shielded me from the cold, dispelling any traces of chill.

Once again, conflicting emotions surged within me, an overwhelming mix of joy and guilt.
I fought to conceal the overwhelming surge of happiness and remorse that threatened to overflow from within me.

It was a delicate balancing act, as I tried to navigate the complexities of this newfound life that I had taken over.

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