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    The cold and cool expression lingered on his face for only a brief moment, less than a second. As our eyes met, his gaze softened into a friendly half-moon shape.

    “Why, don’t you like this tea? Should I brew a different one?”

    His tone was kind and sociable, conveying a considerate attitude. Everything about Erhan seemed to paint us as friendly stepbrothers.

    I quietly shook my head, indirectly expressing my willingness to drink the tea as I gripped the cup. Even then, I could feel Erhan’s gaze sticking to my cheek.

    He was watching my every move intently, surrounded by servants standing in a line. After such a long time, the dreadful Serpentine House had become frightening again.

    “You said you had something to ask… right?”

    Eager to leave, my words came out as a mix of formal and informal speech. I even stammered and accidentally bit my tongue, the pain nearly bringing tears to my eyes. But determined to finish what I was saying, I bravely lifted my head.

    “What’s the matter?”

    Erhan looked a bit surprised, then suddenly burst out laughing.

    “Ahaha. You’re similar yet different from when you were young. Back then, you seemed so bold.”

    It was different from before. While his earlier smiles seemed like a mask, now his face genuinely looked joyful. As I watched him, Erhan took a sip of his tea and then slowly set down the cup.

    Gazing at his naturally graceful demeanor, our eyes met. Hurriedly following suit, I took a sip of my tea, feeling a tickle in my throat as if I was about to cough again.

    Here we go again. I had been intermittently coughing.

    Frowning, I covered my mouth with the back of my hand and turned away to cough.

    However, I hadn’t swallowed the tea before coughing, causing some to leak through my teeth. Embarrassed, I hurriedly looked for a napkin on the table. As I fumbled, a soft touch landed on my cheek.

    Zachary had quietly approached and was pressing a handkerchief to my face, carefully wiping my mouth as if tending to a child. Unaware, I let him do so, about to express my gratitude when…

    “…Ah.”

    Before I could even open my mouth, everything happened in an instant.

    Erhan had silently climbed onto the table like a cat. It wasn’t just his presence that froze me; it was what he was doing. He was gripping the paper on Zachary’s face as if to tear it off. The light shone on Zachary’s now-exposed face, revealing his empty gaze fixed on Erhan.

    Watching the motionless Zachary, Erhan then swiftly turned his head to look at me. The moment our eyes met and he curved his eyes into a crescent, I had an intuition.

    He hadn’t rushed to my room out of joy to share tea together.

    “A mistake.”

    So, Erhan had come…

    “Just out of curiosity, daring to touch your body without knowing his place.”

    …to verify if the duke had assigned the prince to my side.

    And this was not a matter to be taken lightly. Zachary was not just a vulnerability of the family, but a being who could influence the kingdom’s politics. Placing such a person beside me, who was not the heir Erhan, meant…

    “But it seems you don’t even know who your master is.”

    …trouble.

    Erhan’s face, with an angel-like expression, twisted into a deep smile. Acting as if nothing had happened, he climbed down from the table, sat back in his seat, and dropped the paper he was holding. Then he abruptly grabbed the teapot and poured the remaining tea onto the hand that had held the paper.

    Sssshh… My cup of tea had cooled down somewhat, but the water in the teapot was evidently still warm. Or more precisely, it must have been hot.

    The sight of his hand turning bright red from the steaming hot water was painful to see, making me instinctively open my mouth in shock. However, Erhan appeared unfazed. Calmly placing the teapot back on the table and elegantly drying his hand with a handkerchief, he stood up.

    “There’s no more tea.”

    Then, he turned to me with a slight smile.

    “Shall I get more?”

    I’m fine, really.

    Could we just stop drinking tea…

    The sight of Erhan smiling made me feel as if I was on the verge of tears. At the same time, a quest popped into my head. That’s right. Not only was I living with a potential disaster acting as a servant, but I also had to survive under Erhan’s scrutiny.

    [Pending: Getting on Erhan’s Good Side]

    …Maybe I should just give up.

    “Bring more.”

    As I resigned myself to a thorny path ahead, Erhan looked blissfully unaware of my despair.

    He seemed genuinely intent on having more tea with me, gesturing to a servant who promptly disappeared beyond the greenhouse.

    The servant’s departing figure was eerily surreal.

    Despite the servant walking away, there was no sound of footsteps – only the rustling of the dense plants brushing against their shoulders. The silence, devoid of any human presence, was unsettling.

    We sat in silence, as if bound by an unspoken agreement, neither of us speaking.

    “……”

    Sitting awkwardly in the quiet, I stood up and picked up the paper that Erhan had dropped. It was crumpled and tattered, not being as durable as cloth.

    I didn’t want to put it back on Zachary, but I worried that leaving his face exposed might attract unwanted attention from the duke or my mother. Cautiously, I approached Zachary.

    Anticipating my action, Zachary obediently bowed his head. Seeing him so compliant brought a bitter smile to my face. I awkwardly reattached the paper to his face.

    “Hmm.”

    I tried to secure it properly, but the paper was too tattered to stay in place easily.

    Wondering what to do, I noticed the long ribbon tied around my neck. It was thin and lengthy, easily removable. Though my neck felt bare, it didn’t matter. I reached out to tie the paper with the ribbon, and Zachary bowed his head deeper.

    Then, suddenly, Erhan grabbed my shoulder and turned me around.

    “What are you doing with that filth?”

    In that moment, I could distinctly smell Erhan’s unique scent. It was hard to describe precisely, but there was a strong, artificial fruity aroma emanating from him.

    Erhan looked at Zachary with displeasure, his gaze fixed on Zachary’s bowed head. He scowled harshly at the sight.

    “You’re touching him.”

    His expression, filled with repulsion, made it clear what he was thinking.

    Typically, servants are trained not to touch members of the household. They are often individuals who have committed serious crimes like murder or assault, or other grave offenses beyond my knowledge.

    So, if a regular servant had behaved like Zachary did with me, it would have been slightly uncomfortable.

    “He’s alright.”

    But Zachary is different.

    He isn’t a criminal; rather, he was unfortunately abducted by our family.

    Saying this, I finished tying the ribbon in Zachary’s hair, holding the paper in place. The result was comically awkward, his hair sticking out at the back, almost making me laugh inappropriately given the situation.

    “Sorry, I’m not very good at this.”

    Laughing while fixing the hair of someone who could be a future disaster seemed like a sure path to a bad ending. I suppressed my laughter and carefully smoothed back Zachary’s hair to tidy it up.

    After finishing, I stepped back, and Zachary obediently took a step behind, assuming a waiting position.

    Even as I turned around, I could feel Erhan’s gaze crawling over me like a leech. Our eyes met again. The intense fruity scent was still emanating from him. It seemed so out of place – why would he choose such a fragrance?

    “…Is your hand okay?”

    I changed the subject to break the tense atmosphere.

    Watching me clumsily switch topics, Erhan rolled his eyes as if debating whether to follow along, then exaggeratedly shrugged his shoulders.

    “Of course. It doesn’t hurt.”

    While he smiled at me, it was his reddened hand that caught my attention more.

    Upon closer inspection, it looked worse than I thought, and I sighed. It was so inflamed that it couldn’t possibly be painless. If not properly treated, it might blister badly and leave scars.

    Rinsing the wound under running water would be best, but Erhan was unlikely to go to a sink himself. I wanted to provide some emergency care with cold water. While looking for something suitable, I found a large watering can.

    They really maintain this place, having a watering can here. I picked it up and filled it with ice from a large bowl. The ice cracked and hissed as it absorbed the water.

    I extended the bowl towards Erhan.

    “In case it… gets infected.”

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