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    “I did it, Zachary!”

    I shouted, jumping up to hug Zachary’s neck.

    Though I hadn’t undone the most potent curse mark on his neck, the other curse marks still remained, merely weakened, not completely dispelled. There’s still a long way to go, but this small first success has given me wings of confidence.

    “I’ll make them all disappear!”

    The curse marks engraved by the Count will gradually fade over time, sinking beneath the skin. In their place, my own spells will remain, but once I’ve dispelled all the curse marks, Zachary will awaken and be free.

    I’ve been through all sorts of hardships, not sleeping for long periods. The days of endless worry about whether I was doing it right are now goodbye.

    “You’ve worked hard.”

    There are still three more magic seals of power I haven’t undone: the opposite wrist, the ankles, and one that suppresses all the nerves in the body. Even after dispelling this one, it’s hard to imagine Zachary suddenly standing up and finding freedom like in dramas or movies. Seeing Zachary still standing there like a stiff puppet even after the dispelling, I thought as much. But today, I decided not to think negatively. Embracing him, I felt Zachary’s heart beating much faster than usual, and I just kept looking at the blackened, dead curse marks. It seems I didn’t notice it right away because of that.

    The cautious movement of his hand, trying to pat my back.

    ***

    I’ve been looking in the mirror over and over again. Is this right?

    In the mirror, unlike usual, my somewhat curly hair was neatly combed back, and my youthful face with oil applied looked awkwardly rolling its eyes.

    In the Serpentine household, it was mostly forbidden for servants to touch their master’s body, so the clothes that arrived in my room were simply tried on a few times and then put away in the wardrobe. But today was different. My mother had specially brought someone from the avengers to help me dress, and as a result of them pushing me from the crack of dawn…

    “…I look like a clown.”

    That’s how I ended up looking like this.

    I tried to pick out the most decent clothes I could find, but the avenger and my mother dissuaded me. In the end, I chose light cream-colored trousers. The problem was, by my standards, they felt incredibly ornate, as if something was smeared all over them.

    In the Serpentine household, it was an unspoken rule that everyone except my mother wore monochrome clothes. However, the outfit I was wearing now was very colorful. It must have been influenced by my mother, but compared to my usually dull and low-saturation room, the excessively bright and ornate appearance in the mirror felt awkward.

    “My head feels completely screwed up.”

    I tried to neatly comb back my tousled hair, but it was fixed very firmly to prevent any strands from falling out. The texture felt like that of a wax doll to the touch. Because of that, I ended up staring at the mirror, which I usually wouldn’t have looked at for more than a few minutes, and turned away with a sigh.

    “Do you also find it funny?”

    To go to the banquet looking like this ridiculous figure.

    I addressed Zachary, who had been by my side all this time. He raised his head and stared at me in the mirror.

    However, as time passed, no words came back. Eventually, his silence made me laugh bitterly.

    ‘I need to hurry up and dispel the rest of the curse marks.’

    A day had passed since I dispelled one of Zachary’s curse marks, but there were no significant changes. Given that I was about to make my debut at the Portis Ducal House, I had neither the time to observe Zachary nor the leisure to dispel the remaining curses.

    ‘I believed there would be at least some change.’

    Yet, the feeling of disappointment didn’t easily fade away.

    I had hoped for even a minor change since one out of the four curse marks had been dispelled, but Zachary remained the same. He still called me “young master,” attended to my needs, and spoke no more than necessary.

    “Oh, my child.”

    As I stood lost in thought, staring at Zachary, my mother burst through the door.

    “Mother.”

    Under normal circumstances, she would have been ready long before now, but today was different. Today, I was her top priority, so she only started getting ready after finishing with my dressing. That must have made her hurry more than usual.

    “You look beautiful.”

    However, she didn’t seem rushed at all and was as beautiful as ever today. Perhaps to match my outfit, she wore a light beige dress with gloves, which, although simpler than what she wore to other balls, did not lose its elegance.

    Approaching me with her usual grace, my mother signaled for me to escort her.

    “Your father is busy with work, and it’s awkward going with my only son who doesn’t even know how to escort properly.”

    My mother gave me a teasing scolding. Unable to win against her teasing tone, I eventually extended my hand to escort her out the door, and she laughed merrily.

    “Ah, the weather is nice. So nice.”

    Mother seemed even more excited than usual. I really didn’t want to go, but seeing how happy she was made it seem somewhat bearable.

    “Everyone will be surprised when we arrive.”

    As I escorted my mother down the stairs, taking careful steps, she suddenly made a curious comment.

    “Why?”

    Was the ducal house’s banquet going to be more lavish than I imagined? Tilting my head slightly and blinking, she burst into laughter and said,

    “Just because.”

    Walking down the stairs in a dress was harder than I thought. As I matched her steps and bowed my head to descend slowly, she said,

    “You’re the masterpiece.”

    “Is that so……”

    My mother stated it matter-of-factly. About to mindlessly agree, I stopped and stood frozen with a dumbfounded expression.

    “Mother!”

    My face flushed red in an instant.

    They say even a hedgehog finds its own offspring soft, and at times like this, I felt like I was going to lose my mind because of my mother. Her flattery was something I could gladly accept when I was younger, but now, on the verge of adulthood, such words made me want to hide in a mouse hole in frustration.

    “Really, seriously, ah…!”

    I wouldn’t be able to handle it if this happened at the banquet today. Covering my face with one hand and turning my head in embarrassment, she whispered teasingly,

    “Why cover up the masterpiece?”

    She’s relentless in her teasing.

    With a burst of laughter, she resumed her paused steps and began descending the rest of the staircase.

    “We’ll be late, let’s hurry.”

    And so, we continued our walk together. As my mother said, the weather was exceptionally nice today. However, true to the mansion’s design which rarely let in sunlight, the interior was quite gloomy compared to the bright outdoors.

    Creak.

    As we reached the hall, the waiting servants lined up to see us off. As the large door opened wide, letting in the light, my mother and I slowly walked towards it, about to leave the mansion when suddenly,

    “You cannot come.”

    My mother turned her head slightly to the side and spoke sharply. Following her gaze, I turned my head and my eyes widened in surprise.

    Zachary was right behind me.

    I hadn’t noticed him following. His footsteps were so silent I didn’t even realize he was so close. With eyes wide in surprise, I looked up at him. Underneath the fluttering fabric stirred by a gentle breeze, his tightly closed lips were visible.

    But that was as far as he was allowed. As my mother said, servants, including avengers, were not permitted to leave the mansion without permission. It was a strict restriction applied to all servants of the household. Without the permission of the family, no one was allowed to leave the mansion.

    ‘But how did he come this far?’

    Look now. Unlike a few servants and avengers who were permitted to escort us from the door to the carriage, the other servants within the mansion couldn’t even come close, standing at a distance.

    But Zachary was different. He was close enough to step out of the door in just three steps.

    I couldn’t make sense of this odd situation. I wondered how he could come this far and stick so close, but as my mother hastened our steps, I was about to move when,

    “!”

    Zachary followed me. This shouldn’t be happening, it couldn’t be. How could this be?

    My gaze shifted quickly. Fortunately, my mother was still facing forward and hadn’t noticed Zachary. If she were to see this scene…

    ‘No.’

    I leaned in and lightly grabbed Zachary’s collar towards me. His body compliantly tilted as he was pulled by my hand, and the two of us came close, almost colliding.

    “Wait here. I’ll be back soon.”

    I was close enough to Zachary to catch his distinctive scent. But it was only for a moment. As soon as I uttered those words, I immediately detached myself. Fortunately, my words seemed to have an effect, as Zachary, who was about to come closer, stopped in his tracks.

    “Oscar?”

    “Yes, mother. I’ll go.”

    I couldn’t delay any longer for fear that adding anything unnecessary might arouse my mother’s suspicion. Pretending I had stopped to adjust my clothes, I turned back around to find my mother standing there.

    One step, two steps. As I fully stepped out of the mansion, the clear sky greeted me. However, I couldn’t focus on the sky. Unable to resist, I glanced back briefly at Zachary. But all I could see as the door closed and the mansion’s interior slowly darkened was the tip of Zachary’s feet, standing still.

    Thud.

    The door closed firmly behind me.

    The sunlight was overly warm, but my heart was not at ease.

    The image of Zachary standing alone in the darkness kept haunting me. Was it because it was the first time I had been this far from Zachary since he became my servant? It was also the first time I was leaving the mansion without him…

    “I’m looking forward to it.”

    My mother smiled, unaware of my turmoil.

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