Astia was swept up in the situation by chance, and she only pretended to be Astia to save herself and her children from Lucerne’s fear.
She stayed by his side, pretending to love and be loved, to protect their lives.


A bitter laugh escaped her lips.

“Right.
It was all a lie.”

Hyerim’s love for her children was pure.
She had risked everything for them, even her own life.

“Lucerne, I like you too.”

As she spoke of his confession, my lips curled up without my knowledge, then quickly stiffened.

I had been happy, thinking it was real.
But it was just something she said because she was afraid that I would harm her and her children, and that I would destroy the world like in the novel.

I was angry.
More than the fact that Hyerim had deceived her true identity, I was angry that she pretended to love me.
It hurt more and I felt a deeper sense of betrayal.
It felt like my heart was being torn to pieces and trampled on.

“Darn it.”

What was even more disgusting was that I couldn’t stop thinking about Hyerim.

Caleb took care of Hyerim carefully without being asked.
He Lucerne couldn’t stop him, and he even asked him to take better care of her.
It had been several days since he realized that he shouldn’t do that anymore.

He had to go to the Santuris or the garden early in the morning to see Hyerim.
He couldn’t start the day properly without seeing her smile.

He dreamt every day.
He went back to Hyerim before Hyerim’s true identity was revealed and smiled at her.

At first, it was too shocking to appear in his dreams, but soon the dreams became a little bit of reality.
Hyerim was smiling kindly in places where Lucerne’s eyes met.

He covered his eyes with his hands to avoid seeing the illusion.

“Lucerne.”

He heard a hallucination, so he plugged his ears, but the voice calling him didn’t stop.

Someone whispered in his mind.

“Just admit it.
You miss her.”

“No way.
That’s impossible.
She’s not Astia.”

“Even if she’s not Astia, you can still miss her.”

“That’s nonsense.
I love and want only Astia.
It’s absurd to miss someone who isn’t her.
Besides, she dared to impersonate my Astia.”


The voice in his head laughed at Lucerne.

“You really think you loved the woman who was so cruel to you?”

“Shut up!”

He shouted and sprang up from his seat.
His heart was pounding like crazy.
He didn’t love Astia? He loved someone else who wasn’t Astia? It was impossible.

He clenched his teeth and released a burst of blue energy.
Crack! Bang! The study was destroyed in a mess.

Only when he had exhausted all his remaining power did Lucerne faint.
Then he dreamed happily of Hyerim, smiling at him as they faced each other, unlike the wind.

The harvest festival ended without me realizing it.
Although I heard noisy cheering outside, it only seemed faint from the tower of Stria.
When I asked Asilis, she said neither Mirana, Henry nor Collis returned to where they originally lived.
 

The day after the noisy harvest festival ended, after having dinner with the children and preparing for bed, Caleb came to see me.
 

“His Majesty requests an audience.”            

“Requests?”                

“Yes.”                         

Requests?              

This was the palace of Lucerne.
He was the emperor of the Strian Empire and the master of the palace of Stria.
He could come and go in the palace whenever he wanted and dismiss me and the children at any moment.
 

So why request to see the unwanted guest who occupied his bedroom?      

I don’t know the reason, but being summoned by him in the middle of the night meant he had something to say.
Am I finally to be disposed of? Am I, now to die?     

Yawning and taking a good look at the faces of the children preparing well, I was ready in mind.

“Alright.
I’ll go.”

Lucerne was waiting for me in the garden of flowering bush.
He sat on a chair next to an empty table without tea or snacks, staring blankly at the flowering bush swaying in the autumn wind.
 

The night wind was biting.
Tucking in my collar, I sat down on the chair facing him.

“You requested to see me?”   

“Yes.”   

“You could have just returned to Santuris.
Why did you specifically call me out here?”

Lucerne’s gaze, which had been on the flowers the whole time, met mine.
I heard his deep exhale.
 


“It seems strange of me to have summoned you.”  

“There’s no need for that consideration now, you know.”  

“Hmm.”      

I hugged my shoulders from the cold wind, though I hadn’t said I was cold.
Lucerne reached out his hand.
Light enveloped my body and soon my whole body became warm as if wearing thick clothes.
 

“Thank you.”      

At my words of gratitude, Lucerne startled as if in surprise and briefly furrowed his brows.
 

“Reflexively.”      

He answered curtly and studied my face before asking awkwardly.
 

“How have you…been so far?”        

Though he knew how I was doing through Caleb or other servants, he asked for an update anyway, which I found amusing.
I couldn’t help but let out a giggling laugh.

“As you know, thanks to your kindness, I’ve been living very comfortably.
I’ve eaten delicious food, slept well, spent time with the children, read many books I enjoy, and the book you sent today was particularly pleasing.
Thank you.”

“That’s a relief.”        

“I want to know the reason.”  

“The reason?”

“Why are you acting this way? Are you trying to escape reality? Or can you not bring yourself to get rid of me because my shell still looks like Astia?”  

Lucerne closed his mouth. 

I had much time to prepare my mind.
If I say I wasn’t afraid, it would be a lie, but I was ready to accept the consequences of my deception.

Without panicking or wavering like before, I continued speaking calmly.
 

“Though I look like this now, I am still Hyerim.
So don’t hesitate.”     

Lucerne did not respond.
 

After debating whether to add more, I spoke up thinking it might be the last time:     

“I know what I’ve done is unforgivable to you who has longed for Astia’s love for so long.
I’m truly sorry.”

When I stopped speaking, the cicadas buzzed noisily, as if trying to fill the void.

Lucerne, who had a complex expression as if to spill words, clamped his lips shut.
 


Does he still need more time for his thoughts to organize?  

I was about to say we could talk later if he needed more time.
 

Lucerne spoke in a tiny voice.

“That may be the reason.”      

“……Pardon?”  

“Why I cannot kill you.
Even though I know you are not Astia, I still have to linger by your side.
It may be because you wear Astia’s shell.”   

If not that, he could not explain his own heart.
 

A tiny voice trailed after:      

“……That’s likely the case then.
I thought so.”

I replied calmly as I had anticipated his words. 

It was a typical Lucerne-like answer, making me laugh a little.
 

Yet for some reason, my eyes felt hot.
I had a feeling of my heart hardening.
 

“Haha.”          

I laughed, but it wasn’t funny at all.
My tears almost burst out.

I thought I was ready mentally.
But now I realize I only prepared myself for death.
I didn’t anticipate the hurt from confirming Lucerne’s thoughts and feelings.

What a silly Hyerim.
 

I thought I shouldn’t, yet I knew I couldn’t.
 

Why did I expect? Why did I expect? 

Though he wasn’t by my side, Lucerne took care of me and the children’s convenience and needs carefully, so I misunderstood.
I thought the reason Lucerne didn’t kill me for pretending to be Astia, who was like another world to him, was because of the face. 

I thought that because he loved Hyerim instead of Astia, even after knowing I lied, he still couldn’t cast me out and kept treating me well.

I wished he would love me.
 

I wished Lucerne would love Hyerim, not Astia.
 

That’s what I wished for during the times we were apart.
I prayed for it.


“Ugh…”   

Finally, the tears fell.

I hugged my face with both hands and curled up my body.

After all, Hyerim wasn’t loved.
The only reason I survived was that I had Astia’s face.

Though I knew I should be happy to survive, my tears spilled uncontrollably.

It was pathetic.
Though still hurt, I wanted to be loved.
 

Lucerne did not move from across the table, just watching me cry.
Unlike before, he did not comfort me by wiping my tears or consoling me.
That change made me sadder and I cried more. 

I cried silently for a long time.
Not crying out loud, that tiny remaining dignity.
 

It was late at night when my eyes were so swollen I could barely see that I stopped crying.
 

Get a grip, Hyerim.
You survived because of Astia’s face.
If you ruin this pretty face, Lucerne will hate you more.
 

I quickly wiped my tears with my sleeves and got my breath under control.
 

“Ahh.”       

I straightened my back and took a deep breath.
 

Tears almost welled up again.
My heart calmed down before I slightly lifted the corners of my lips and turned to Lucerne.
 

“…..Thank you for not killing me and the children, whatever the reason.”  

Lucerne’s neat eyebrows fluttered imperceptibly for a moment.
 

My heart pounded and my feet trembled, but I acted calmly.
 

“What can I do for you? Stay by your side as promised first, or if the sight disgusts you, I’ll take the children and leave the palace right away.”  

“Live in the palace.
Like before it was revealed you were Hyerim.”  

It was an answer without any hesitation.
To live like before it was revealed I was Hyerim, there couldn’t be a more rejecting answer.
 

Though the cores are different, a shell like Astia’s must be nice.
 

It was sad, but I still smiled.
 

“I understand, Lucerne.
Take good care of yourself.”  

A hurt expression flickered across Lucerne’s neat face.

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