“…I thought you were already asleep,” I remarked, surprised by Lucerne’s presence.

“I usually return around this time from work.
It’s good to keep that in mind,” he responded.

“Alright, I’ll remember.
Good night,” I bid him farewell, but Lucerne didn’t immediately leave the room.
Instead, he stood in front of the chair across from me, as if seeking permission to sit down.
I nodded subtly, granting him permission, and he took a seat.

Leaning forward, resting his elbow on his thigh, Lucerne appeared lost in thought.
Soft light emitted from a nearby magic lamp, casting a gentle glow around him.
After a while, he broke the silence.

“How is life in the imperial palace?” Lucerne asked, and it was a question with an obvious answer.

It’s comfortable, clean, the food is delicious, everything is beautiful, it’s warm, there are no leaks when it rains, and, most importantly, the children are enjoying it.
I’m really grateful.
Thank you,” I replied, expressing my contentment.
Lucerne let out a sigh of relief, seemingly pleased with my response.

“That’s good to hear.
We’ve put a lot of effort into the gardens, but it will still take some time for them to fully flourish.
Dressmakers will be arriving at the castle soon, so you can have as many dresses made as you like.
Once the dresses are ready, I will personally oversee the selection of matching accessories,” Lucerne informed me.

“The dress I have now is sufficient,” I replied, feeling a bit overwhelmed by his generosity.

“It’s a spare dress without an owner, not meant for you,” he insisted.

“I… I see,” I murmured, understanding his point.

“If you ever need anything else, don’t hesitate to let me know,” Lucerne assured me.

“No, even now, I have more than enough,” I replied, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the abundance of what I already had.

Lucerne fidgeted with his hands, appearing somewhat anxious, before continuing the conversation.

“Dipeume has been observing you closely all day, and he mentioned that he didn’t detect any signs of illness in you,” he shared.

“Yes… I’m not experiencing any pain,” I confirmed.

“What about your memories? Have they still not returned?” he asked with concern.

“Memories…,” I trailed off, realizing that I possessed every memory of my life as Hyerim, from my fearful childhood to my lonely school days and independent life.
However, when it came to Astia, there was a blank void.
The only memory I had of her was her appearance in 〈The Tyrant and the Archmage〉.

I watched as Lucerne hesitated, unsure of how to respond to me.
Eventually, he shook his head, and a sigh escaped his lips.
His eyes seemed to tremble, and my heart raced in anticipation of his answer.

But before I could say anything, he quickly interjected, “I’m sorry.
Please forget I asked.
It’s not fair for me to burden you with such questions.”

His words hung in the air, leaving me with a sense of unease.
I wanted to know his true feelings, but I also feared the answer.
Perhaps it was better this way, to leave things unsaid.

“Please, don’t worry about it,” I said, trying to reassure both him and myself.
“I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me, and I’ll do my best to be the person you expect me to be.”

Deep down, I had hoped that Lucerne would prefer this changed version of Astia, that he would find something special in me.
But his response made it clear that he still held a deep connection to the Astia he had known before.

Lucerne nodded silently, his gaze fixed on some distant point.
The weight of his unspoken words lingered between us, and I couldn’t help but wonder what was truly in his heart.
But for now, I knew it was best to let the matter rest and focus on the present.

“It’s not about disliking or regretting.
No matter who you are, you are still you,” Lucerne’s words echoed in my mind, and though I knew he meant them sincerely, my heart couldn’t help but ache.

“It’s not.
They look the same, but they are different people,” I whispered, my voice filled with sorrow.

For a brief moment, I wished I were the real Astia.
Then, it wouldn’t be wrong for me to yearn for Lucerne’s love without feeling guilty or conflicted.
I could revel in the joy of his affection without the weight of knowing the truth.

But deep down, I knew the reality.
I was Hyerim, not Astia.
No matter how much I wished otherwise, I couldn’t change that fact.
My heart ached with the weight of my conflicting emotions.

Wrapping the cloak tightly around me, I slumped forward, my head bowed low.
Lucerne’s gaze bore into me, filled with concern and compassion.

“Are you tired?” he asked, his voice gentle and soothing.

“A little bit,” I admitted, my voice barely above a whisper.

Realizing that he might have taken up too much of my time, Lucerne suggested I go rest.
I mustered a faint smile and bid him goodnight, watching as he turned towards the bedroom door.

“Have a nice dream,” I said, my voice tinged with longing.

Lucerne paused, his hand on the doorknob, and hesitated for a moment.
It was as if there were unspoken words lingering in the air between us.

“…You too, please,” he finally responded, his voice barely audible.

Oh, how I wanted that.
I wanted to find solace in peaceful dreams, free from the turmoil of my thoughts and the weight of my guilt.
I yearned for a respite from the complexities of my current existence.

With a soft click, the door closed, separating us once again.
Loneliness enveloped me, and I clutched the cloak tighter, seeking comfort in its warmth.

As I stood alone in the hallway, I couldn’t help but reflect on the reality of my situation.
I was Hyerim, living in Astia’s world, carrying the burden of her appearance.
It was a constant reminder that I wasn’t the person Lucerne had loved and cherished all those years.

Feeling a mix of determination and resignation, I retreated to my room.
The weight of the day’s encounters and the mysteries of my past continued to weigh heavily on my mind.
The ache in my heart persisted, but amidst it all, a flicker of hope remained.

Lying in bed, I stared at the ceiling, thoughts swirling in my mind like a tempest.
I longed for acceptance, for a sense of belonging in this unfamiliar existence.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I refused to let despair consume me.

Finally, exhaustion took hold, and I closed my eyes, surrendering myself to the realm of dreams.
With a whispered prayer for solace and strength, I embraced the darkness, hoping that when I woke, I would find the resilience to face the challenges that awaited me.

* * *

The smell of nostalgia enveloped the air, transporting me back to a familiar yet distant place.
It was another one of those dreams, set in a dimly lit room adorned with tattered curtains.
A mix of happiness and sorrow swirled within me, knowing what was to come.

In the dream, I found myself as a young child, just returning from the bathroom after washing a plastic container I had discovered in the trash.
Excitement bubbled inside me, fueled by a simple intention.

“I’m going to plant an apple seed here,” I declared with determination.

The day held a bitter-sweetness, marking the end of summer as the weather began to cool and the promise of fall lingered in the air.
My aunt had recently purchased a vibrant red apple, and later that day, as an act of kindness, she gifted me a slice of that apple.

The crisp bite of the fruit was a delight to my senses, its juice trickling like sweet nectar.
I savored each morsel, savoring the precious taste, careful not to let the apples disappear too quickly.
I nibbled on the edges like a rabbit, cherishing every last piece.

But as the apples vanished, my curiosity led me to explore the kitchen.
Amidst the discarded food waste, I stumbled upon apple seeds tucked away in a bag.
Remembering a book I had read, which claimed that planting an apple seed would give birth to an apple tree, I swiftly retrieved the plastic bucket and seeds, ensuring to clean them in the bathroom.

Taking a handful of soil from my aunt’s planter, I carefully filled the bucket and planted the apple seeds.
I watered them with care, singing a simple tune I had picked up along the way.

“Seed, seed, sow the seed.
By all means, by all means, I gave them water.
One night, two nights… … .”

I placed the modest potted plant in a corner of the room, humming softly as the scent of apples wafted through the air.
The lingering sweetness of the fruit danced upon my taste buds, creating a symphony of sensations.

In my imagination, I pictured the apple tree growing rapidly, bearing an abundance of apples for me to enjoy.
However, my musings were interrupted by the arrival of my aunt into the room.

Instinctively, I moved to shield the flowerpot, attempting to hide my little secret.
Yet, my actions only raised suspicion.

“Lee Hye-rim, what are you doing hiding over there?” my aunt inquired, her voice filled with curiosity.

“It’s nothing, aunt,” I replied, my voice tinged with a hint of guilt.

“My aunt told me not to lie, didn’t she?” I whispered, a pang of guilt washing over me.

“Sorry…I…I did it,” I confessed hesitantly.

“Move aside quickly,” she commanded, her voice laced with frustration.
I bit my lip, shifting to the side, a feeble act of defiance that held little power against my aunt’s authority.

With a forceful push, she sent me sprawling to the floor.
A cry escaped my lips as the impact jolted through my body.

“Oh my goodness! Hyerim Lee! Who gave you permission to bring trash into the room?” she scolded, her voice filled with disbelief.

“Aunt…it’s not trash,” I managed to utter, my voice trembling.

“Someone better start explaining!” she demanded, her anger rising.

Her kicks landed on my thighs, stinging my tender flesh, but I held back my tears, determined not to let them flow.
In a moment of desperation, I clutched onto my aunt’s pants, my small fingers grasping at the fabric.

“It’s a flowerpot.
I made it.
I planted apple seeds,” I mustered the courage to explain.

“What? A pot? How is this a flower pot? And apple seeds? Where did you…did you really go through the trash?” Her voice wavered with a mix of shock and disbelief.

Startled by her reaction, I quickly released my grip on her pants and retreated, seeking refuge behind her.

As expected, my aunt’s anger escalated.
Her hand lashed out, sending my cherished flowerpot crashing to the floor with a resounding thud.
The soil spilled out, mingling with the remnants of my carefully cleaned apple seeds, now scattered across the floor.

“Oh no…I’m sorry,” I muttered, my voice barely audible.

“Lee Hye-rim! How many times have I told you not to go through my trash? You’re not some stray animal rummaging around! Are you nothing but garbage?” Her words pierced through me, each one leaving a mark.

Crawling towards the fallen apple seed, I scooped it up, cradling it tightly within my palm.
It was all I had left of my small act of hope.

In her anger, my aunt kicked out again, her frustration manifesting in her actions.

“Hey! Stop getting your hands dirty! Wake up already! Throw away whatever you’re holding! Get up, clean yourself up, and put everything away! Lee Hye-rim, there’s not a single day of peace with you!”

“Sorry, sorry…” I whimpered, my voice filled with remorse.

All I had wanted was to eat an apple, to imagine a garden brimming with those juicy fruits.
“I’ll create an apple garden for you since you love apples,” Lucerne had said, and the mere thought had filled me with joy, perhaps due to the lingering childhood trauma.

“Even if my eyes were truly blind, I wouldn’t be blind to garbage.
Garbage smells like garbage,” I found myself criticizing my parents in front of Lucerne, despite knowing it was impolite.
What was I even apologizing for?

My body trembled uncontrollably, and in an attempt to hold back tears, I closed my eyes tightly and bit my lip.

“…class…” a muffled voice attempted to speak through my sobs.

“…Ah!…Tia!…Come on!…Ah!”

“Apologize…” I managed to utter amidst the emotional turmoil.

For the apples…was it even necessary?”

There was a sound of something bouncing around, adding to the chaotic atmosphere.
Gradually, the blurry voices around me began to clear, and I realized that someone was crying beside me.

“Mmm! No, yes, ummm! Ahh!”

“Mom, please don’t be sick.
Mommy can’t be sick…”

“Huh, Mama, huh, Mama.”

“I’ll defeat all the bad guys, so wake up! Come on, Mom!”

The voices of the children reached my ears, filled with desperation and sadness.

As I woke up from the bad dream, I struggled to find my voice.
I wanted to assure everyone that I was fine and that it didn’t hurt, but my words came out weak and cracked, like a parched land.

“Um, uhm… It’s okay, Mom, guys.
Don’t cry.”

“Mom? Mom woke up! Mother!”

“Uncle monster! Mom is awake!”

The children clung to me, their faces teary yet filled with wide smiles.
The adults around us bustled about, attending to various tasks.
Dipeume approached and checked my pulse, while the familiar voice that I had heard in my sleep reached my ears.

“Astia, are you okay?”


As if guided by the children, Lucerne knelt beside my bed, his large hands tightly gripping the blanket.
His words came out in a stutter, as if his throat was constricted.

“I’m relieved… I’m glad you woke up.”

“What happened?”

“The lady-in-waiting who came at dawn found you.
We don’t know what caused it, but you were twisting your body and moaning in pain.
We were worried because you didn’t respond even when we tried to wake you.”


It must have been due to the nightmare, the one where I felt crushed by apples and garbage.

I turned my head to survey the crowd around me.
Alongside Lucerne and the children, there were Dipeume, the palace doctors, court ladies, and Caleb gathered around my bed.
I felt a mix of happiness and gratitude that so many people had rushed to my side and were concerned about me because of a mere nightmare.

Despite feeling a surge of happiness, I also sensed tears welling up within me.
I furrowed my brows, attempting to hold them back, and forcefully lifted the corners of my mouth into a smile.

Ah, it must have been a peculiar expression on my face.
I couldn’t help but wonder what I should do in that moment.

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