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    Removing a book caused another hidden behind it to take its place, suggesting that behind each visible book, there might be dozens, perhaps hundreds more concealed.

    ‘This won’t be easy.’

    This was very bad news for me.

    Finding the specific motifs and their counteracting patterns among so many books? And that’s not all; I also had to find books about magical tools. How long would it take to search through all of this?

    Feeling my face drain of color, I stood holding a book with a triangular pattern containing six circles, lost in thought. Suddenly, the string I had pulled slithered down like a snake, snatched the book from my hand, and returned it to its place.

    “……”

    With three clicks, the string slackened as if it had completed its task.

    I looked up at the ceiling, which seemed as high as the sky.

    ‘At this rate, Zachary awakening his own powers might be quicker than me trying to untangle these spells one by one.’

    It was natural to feel demotivated in such an absurd situation. The heat of my tension cooled, and my spirits sank.

    “Alright.”

    I clenched my fists tightly, rolled up my sleeves, reached out, and grabbed several strings, pulling them down in one swift motion. This might be a repetitive and daunting task, but I was determined to persevere.

    ‘Falling skies don’t exist.’

    Books rained down like a torrent. Before they could be caught, I swiftly grabbed more strings, pulling them down. Books fell and kept falling. Clenching my teeth and widening my eyes, I scanned through the countless falling books for the desired patterns.

    I didn’t know how long it would take, but I was determined to bring all these books down to the ground.

    ‘After all, this isn’t the real sky.’

    I was resolute to find everything.

    ***

    “Have you fallen asleep here again?”

    Someone approached and gently swept my hair back. Despite my drowsiness and fatigue, the warm and tender touch was a welcome relief. I couldn’t help but smile foolishly, prompting the person to murmur in amusement.

    “My child, what have you done to your face? Why have you smeared such precious paint on it?”

    The woman wiping my nose was the only one who still used my childhood nickname, the only one who was my…

    “Mother.”

    My beautiful mother. As I barely opened my eyes to greet her, she kissed my forehead softly.

    The ‘paint’ she wiped off with her exquisite handkerchief was not ordinary. It was made from crushed berries mixed with my blood, used for practicing magical sigils. However, I didn’t disclose its true nature.

    “What’s so fascinating about studying these laws? Wouldn’t you rather have another cup of tea with me…?”

    My mother wiped my cheek with the back of her hand, sounding slightly upset. She then flicked through the books I had haphazardly opened, clicking her tongue.

    “I can’t even understand what these are about. How many books have you gone through now? Your father and I were never studious, almost like idlers. How did we have such a unique child?”

    She playfully chastised me while simultaneously praising me, typical of her style. I couldn’t help but laugh. In my drowsiness, I carelessly hid the sigils I had drawn between the pages of the kingdom’s law and history books.

    “No, I think I just resemble my mother, who loves books.”

    Though I spoke like a model student, most of the books my mother saw scattered around were copied from the Serpent’s Pathway. They were also traces of my studies in spellcraft.

    Studying spells without the Duke and his wife noticing was no easy feat. Whenever the Duke was away, I would sneak into the Serpent’s Pathway, frantically pulling out books. If I found one with the sigils I was looking for, I would memorize it or quickly copy it onto paper, then rush back to my room with the paper in my mouth.

    “As I observe the flow of politics, I feel the need to become a great power for our kingdom.”

    …Me, really?

    “Such a commendable thought!”

    Unlikely.

    I forced a false smile in front of my admiring mother.

    Covering my tracks meant producing results, so I studied extensive history and knowledge to hide my spellcraft studies. Exhausted by the endless volume of work, I often fell asleep at my desk instead of my bed, so it’s not surprising that I didn’t develop any fondness for the kingdom.

    “Would it be selfish of me to wish you’d do a bit less?”

    Her gentle inquiry came every time I looked weary, yet she never earnestly discouraged me. Perhaps she respected my choices.

    Her every action revealed her genuine love for me. That’s probably why, exhausted and barely able to keep my eyes open, I still yearned to see her face just once more.

    “By the way, here, take this.”

    However, today’s visit seemed to be more than just concern. She extended what looked like an elegant piece of stationery to me, lying face down on my desk. As I blinked in confusion, she spoke up.

    “It’s an invitation.”

    An invitation? I was so taken aback that I couldn’t hide my surprise. The unexpected word woke me up, and I slowly sat up. My mother smiled brightly.

    “Happy eighteenth birthday.”

    “……Ah.”

    I blinked slowly, finally realizing it was my birthday.

    I remember a time when I adamantly refused birthday parties and gifts, disliking any formality or fuss. Since then, my mother respected my wishes and stopped giving me birthday presents, but she always visited me on my birthday morning to be the first to wish me well. She had never handed me something like this before.

    “…What exactly is this?”

    With a bewildered expression, I unfolded the invitation. As I slowly read the words, I couldn’t hide my shock. The inevitable had finally arrived. My mother burst into laughter at my belated reaction.

    “Oh, Oscar, my lovely child.”

    Yes.

    Today was my eighteenth birthday.

    “And finally, it’s time for you to step out into the world.”

    It was the day I received an invitation, hastening my debut into high society.

    ***

    My eyes stung. Despite them being firmly shut, the sunlight seemed to pierce through, hitting my eyes directly. I wanted to escape the sun’s rays slapping my cheeks, urging me to wake up.

    Groaning, I forced my head to turn, but the room was bright all around. I usually sleep with the curtains open, as the morning sunlight makes it easier to get up.

    ‘I just want to sleep a bit more.’

    Every morning, I regret this decision without fail. I’m too tired.

    When was the last time I had a good night’s sleep…

    ‘I really don’t want to open my eyes. I wish I could stay in bed for a few more minutes.’

    Yet, despite my dawdling, the habits I had formed over time made me sit up. My neck always feels stiff after waking up. I reached for a cup of water before fully opening my eyes and drank it. The lukewarm water helped to wake me up.

    Even in my half-awake state, I didn’t want to appear foolish at breakfast, so I stared at the large mirror in the distance.

    ‘…Eighteen already. I’ve grown up quite a bit.’

    In the mirror, unlike my childhood when I was always frail, stood a significantly grown version of myself.

    Though my face was puffy from sleep, making it less pleasing to look at, I had become healthier and my complexion had improved compared to before.

    “Do you overwork yourself every day?”

    Even on days when I felt relatively well, my mother would always ask if I had stayed up all night. I might still not be as robust as a typical person, but…

    ‘Today feels like a good day. I could even exercise.’

    I knew it. This puffy face, which seemed ready to collapse at any moment, indicated I was actually in a pretty good state. Ridiculous, right? I thought so too. It’s absurd that this is considered a good condition for me.

    ‘At least I’m not collapsing and losing consciousness for days on end like before.’

    Given my frequent illnesses and brushes with death in childhood, the thought of becoming a healthy adult seemed unimaginable. But whether it’s due to my frequent travels through the treacherous Serpent’s Pathway or simply growing stronger mentally with age, I no longer collapse easily, even under strain.

    However, with the slight improvement in my physical health, my need for sleep also increased. For some reason, no matter how early I went to bed, I always felt sleepy in the morning. I viewed it as a chronic condition while blankly staring at the mirror. Realizing I couldn’t dawdle any longer, I yawned and started combing my hair with my hands.

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