“Do not hit him!”

I shouted, but Astia didn’t look at me.
Her face and voice were filled with pure hatred.

“You can’t take anything away from me, Lucerne! Not even a piece of my heart, not a fragment of my life.
I told you, I should have thanked you for worsening my illness and bringing my death closer.
If you had killed me back then, it would have been better.”

Lucerne closed his eyes in agony, his brows furrowing.

Simultaneously, the semi-transparent Astia dissolved into the darkness, becoming completely transparent.
The slender wrist I held tightly turned into shimmering particles, scattering into the air.
What just happened? I stood there, dumbfounded, unable to comprehend the situation.

The room remained enveloped in darkness, silent and still.
I felt a deep sense of unease, unsure of what would come next.

“What is this…?”

“This is… an apparition of Astia, or rather, a feeble attempt to create a semi-transparent form.”

So that was supposed to be Astia?

I knew that her relationship with Lucerne was strained, but seeing it firsthand was even more chilling.
I looked at Lucerne, who slowly opened his eyes and gazed at me with a face full of sadness.

Astia had always been like this, except for the day her illness worsened.
I never saw even a hint of a smile on her face throughout the 20 years since I first met her.”

Twenty years…?

Loving someone who didn’t smile back, someone who slapped and cursed at me every time we met, for twenty years?

Could that… be possible?

Confusion must have been evident on my face as Lucerne raised the corner of his mouth in a wry smile.

“I know what you’re thinking.
That’s why you said my feelings for Astia were not love but obsession.
I didn’t believe it.
I couldn’t fathom that such intense emotions could be anything but love.”

Lifting his head, Lucerne surveyed the room.

“For twenty years, while I desired Astia, I lived in this world.”

I, too, raised my head and surveyed the room.
It was a space devoid of light and shadows, desolate and melancholic, with no warmth.
Only Lucerne and I, breathing, seemed to exist in this pitch-black void.

My chest felt heavy.

In a quiet voice, Lucerne muttered, “I thought it was because Astia was missing.
I believed that having her would make things a little better.
That’s why I couldn’t forget Astia, even though she became another man’s woman.”

“And I wanted it again.
No one would understand the sorrow I felt, knowing she was dying.”

Not knowing what to say, I quietly listened, tilting my ear towards Lucerne.

After a moment of silence, Lucerne continued speaking.

“And then you appeared.”

As he finished his hesitant words, a section of the dark space opened up.
Just like before, the semi-transparent apparition of Astia walked into the space.

The apparition stood in front of Lucerne, but instead of slapping him or cursing at him, she quietly extended both of her hands.

“I’m sorry about earlier.
My hands.
I was a bit startled.”

It was me.

The words I had spoken to Lucerne when I first entered this palace.

A window appeared in the dark space, allowing the sunlight from the garden to illuminate the room.

Lucerne, with a slight smile on his face, raised his hand and gently placed it on top of the hand offered by the apparition.

Soon after, another apparition of Astia entered through the door.
Unlike the previous one, this one rushed in, flustered and apologetic.

Behind her, a magic lantern that had disappeared earlier reappeared.

Following her, yet another apparition entered, smiling beautifully and expressing gratitude.

The place was filled with numerous apparitions of Astia.

Some cried, some laughed, some confessed their feelings, and some blushed with shyness.

Lucerne stood in his place, seemingly rooted, as he observed the multitude of apparitions surrounding me.

With each apparition’s appearance, something new manifested in Lucerne’s world.
Sometimes it was light, sometimes objects, and sometimes colors.

And finally, the last Astia entered.

My apparition walked up to Lucerne, opening her arms to embrace him.

And my apparition, standing in front of Lucerne, opened her arms and embraced him.

“I’ll be honest with you.
You scare me.
Not because I’m afraid you’ll kill me or harm me, but because you treat me so well, because you move me to tears so often.
Because of you, I’ve become insatiable, always wanting more than what I thought would be enough.”

It was the words I had spoken to Lucerne when we were planting the apple tree in the garden.

As soon as those words ended, a gentle breeze swept in from somewhere, enveloping us.

Lucerne and I stood on the marble floor, and blue grass sprouted beneath our feet.
The parlor transformed in an instant, filling with countless varieties of flowers.
The surroundings became bright as daylight, the air that brushed against my cheeks turned warm, and a sweet fragrance filled the air.

Lucerne lowered the hand that had once rested in the hand of the initial apparition of Astia.

The apparitions gradually became transparent like the first apparition of Astia and eventually vanished completely.
In their place, beautiful butterflies with iridescent wings, sparkling like Lucerne’s eyes, remained.

The butterflies fluttered around me, sprinkling colorful dust, encircling me in a swirling dance.

Slowly lifting his head, Lucerne surveyed his surroundings.

“This is the world you’ve shown me.”

I swallowed a breath.

Even though the parlor had always been beautiful and dazzling, I was at a loss for words seeing it shimmer with such natural colors.

As Lucerne reached out his hand, the butterflies gathered around it, and his hand shimmered faintly, surrounded by the falling dust of light from the butterflies.

“The world you’ve given me shone brightly at every moment.
It was dazzling, to the point where it was hard to look directly at it.
I had anticipated it, but with my feeble magic, I couldn’t even come close to imitating the beauty you’ve gifted me.”

I couldn’t even come close to imitating it…

The overwhelming beauty and astonishment of the world I had given Lucerne made my heart race uncontrollably.

A single butterfly gently landed on Lucerne’s palm.
Looking down at the butterfly with an affectionate gaze, he furrowed his brow.

A butterfly gently landed on Lucerne’s palm, and with a tender gaze as if finding it adorable, he furrowed his brow and clenched his fist, crushing the butterfly that had settled on his hand.

In an instant, the beautiful scenery vanished as if waking from a dream, leaving behind the dim and gloomy parlor.

“I was afraid that in the midst of happiness, while strolling through the flower garden, you were waiting for the moment to bring me greater despair.
I forced myself to find solace, reminding myself that you couldn’t regain your memories.
It was truly a futile act.”



Lucerne turned his body and faced me, struggling in pain, as he asked with urgency, “Who are you, really?”

In response to his question about my true identity, I felt a mixture of sadness and laughter.
It had been so long since someone asked about “Hyerim’s” well-being.

“As you can see, my hair and eyes were originally black.
My name is Lee Hyerim.
I died once and when I opened my eyes again, I became Astia.
I’m also the person who read the story of you and Astia in a novel.”

I spoke calmly, as if detached from myself.

“I was afraid my true identity would upset you.
That’s why I had to constantly verify if you truly loved me.
Every time you assured me, I felt both joy and guilt.
I was grateful.
Thanks to you, it was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel lonely or sad.
I was happy.”

As I looked at Lucerne, who remained silent, I smiled faintly.

“Though I deceived you and stole someone else’s life, please, I beg you, don’t harm the children.
They are the innocent ones, pouring their love onto a woman they’ve never known, unaware that their mother is no longer alive.”

I held onto Lucerne’s wrist and raised it, placing his large, warm palm against my neck.

I wanted to speak calmly, but I couldn’t help the tremor in my voice.

“I’m sorry.
I pretended to be the woman you loved, desiring your love for myself.”

I closed my eyes.

“Kill me.”

Lucerne’s fingers, which had been weakly hanging, twitched.
His palm and fingers slowly wrapped around my neck.
Even with just a little force, it felt like his enormous and powerful hand could easily crush my neck.

Perhaps because I remembered the gentle touch of his hand, my heart continued to beat rhythmically, unaware that this hand would soon end my life, thumping lightly as if tickled.

His hand, touching me delicately, exerted pressure.
Lucerne’s thumb pressed against the tender flesh beneath my jawline, and without realizing it, a whimper escaped my lips.

In that moment, I contemplated whether I would die like this.

“Why can’t I bring myself to kill you, even while hearing this story?”

What, what was he saying?

Lucerne released his hand that had been gripping my neck and stepped back.

“…We’ll talk later.”

“No, you can’t! Wait a moment.
If I don’t die before daybreak, Collis said she would harm the children.
Please, just stay!”

“I will prevent that from happening.
No one else has the power to breach my defenses and harm the children, not even someone of your caliber.
So, rest your eyes until daybreak.”

“Lucerne, wait!”

Despite my plea, Lucerne didn’t turn around.
He walked away, leaving the parlor.

I stared blankly at the entrance to the parlor, where Lucerne had disappeared.

Goodness gracious.

What on earth had just happened?

I had expected Lucerne to kill me in a cruel manner, but instead of killing me, he didn’t even inflict any wounds.

Remembering Lucerne’s voice, instructing me to close my eyes, I felt rooted to the spot, unable to move.

* * *

Despite Lucerne’s assurance that he would prevent Collis from harming the children, I still worried.
I wandered around the parlor all night, but as soon as dawn broke, my anxiety was eased by the arrival of Caleb.
He entered the parlor with the children, who were still half asleep, clinging to their favorite dolls and hugging their pillows.
They rubbed their eyes, yawned, and each expressed their own complaints.

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