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    It seemed as though we had stumbled onto a movie set, complete with a charming little tea table. In stark contrast, the Duke, Erhan, and I were all clad in black, as if attending a funeral. However, the somber atmosphere wasn’t solely due to our attire.

    I glanced furtively at the Duke and Erhan. The Duke’s eyes were shadowed, perhaps from working late into the night, while Erhan, dressed in black from head to toe, also looked weary. Apart from their initial greetings, the two hadn’t exchanged a single word.

    “Oh my, what lovely weather we’re having!” Mother alone was smiling radiantly amidst the suffocating tension between them.

    ‘Could Mother be the true mastermind behind all this?’

    In the midst of this bleak atmosphere, where it wouldn’t be surprising if someone dropped dead, Mother’s solitary smile seemed to mark her as the true mastermind. Sighing, I turned my gaze to Erhan, surrounded by the awkward silence.

    ‘Why on earth did you arrange this meeting?’

    In reality, it was Erhan who had orchestrated this gathering.

    Today, having finished unpacking, Erhan had suggested that the family come together to share a cup of tea.

    I hadn’t spoken to Erhan since that day, so I wanted to decline out of awkwardness. However, Mother, the Duke, and I ended up having tea together in the garden.

    ‘I never expected the Duke to join us.’

    The Duke’s presence was surprising. Wasn’t he someone who was too busy to even catch a glimpse of? It was perplexing that he had accepted Erhan’s sudden invitation. As I stared at the Duke, lost in thought, Erhan began to move.

    “Oh my, are you brewing the tea yourself? Thank you so much.” Mother smiled as she watched Erhan personally preparing the tea. Seeing this, I wondered if I should offer to help, but I had no tea-brewing skills to speak of.

    Erhan seemed quite adept, as though he had brewed tea many times before. His graceful movements reminded me of the time we had tea together in the greenhouse.

    Back then, Erhan had also brewed the tea himself, just as he was doing now. He was truly skilled at it. As Mother received the teacup from Erhan, she remarked in admiration, “It’s as if you’ve spent your entire life brewing tea.”

    “Haha. I had to do it to survive.” Erhan’s response sounded like a joke, and Mother laughed, her eyes crinkling at the corners. Before I knew it, a steaming teacup had appeared before me as well.

    “……”

    Silence reigned thereafter. Perhaps because they were all aristocrats, not even the clink of teaware could be heard as they sipped their tea. Only the distant cries of birds circling the sky filled the void between us.

    “Oscar.”

    “Oh, yes.”

    It was the Duke who broke the silence. Come to think of it, it had been a long time since I had conversed with him like this. In the past, I would often stay by his side, asking him various questions and engaging in small talk.

    At some point, the Duke began frequently leaving the mansion, and above all, my guilty conscience prevented me from seeking him out as often.

    “How are your studies progressing these days?”

    Despite his chilly gaze, his tone was gentle as he inquired. I promptly nodded.

    “I’m not entirely sure, but I’m putting in the effort.”

    “Is that so?”

    The Duke was under the mistaken impression that I had an immense interest in politics. This was the result of my efforts to feign interest in political science to avoid being caught studying sorcery.

    “Of course, I’m woefully lacking, so I still have a long way to go. Once my health improves, I’d like to venture out into the world and learn more. I’m just a frog in a well, after all.”

    I smiled wryly. Politics? Studying? Venturing out into the world?

    I had no desire for any of it. I was already sick of studying. Naturally, I had no wish to explore the world either. All I wanted was to secure a place of my own and live a quiet, solitary life.

    “……I see.”

    After staring at me intently, the Duke quietly sipped his tea, leaving it at that. In the stillness, I turned my gaze to Mother. She seemed lost in thought, momentarily staring off into space, and Erhan……

    ‘Why is he looking at me like that?’

    He was gazing at me intently. Perhaps it was because we were meeting for the first time today after our awkward parting. Finding his persistent stare a bit burdensome, I quickly averted my eyes.

    “I hear you graduated at the top of your class, Erhan?” Mother set down her teacup with a clink and asked Erhan.

    “Yes, I’m embarrassed to say that’s true. I suppose I was fortunate.” Erhan’s tone was endlessly polite as he smiled slightly.

    Speaking of being at the top of his class, it made sense. Erhan had been studying sorcery since he was a child. Sorcery was even more challenging than regular studies. One had to be proficient in various foreign languages and well-versed in the history and trends of sorcery. Additionally, knowledge of all sorts of medicinal herbs was necessary. From Erhan’s perspective, academy studies were probably easier.

    However, even if it was easier, an impressive feat was still impressive. As I pondered this while continuing the meal, the Duke quietly remarked, “It’s only natural.”

    His voice was soft, but not so soft that we at the table couldn’t hear him.

    Why was the Duke speaking so cynically to Erhan?

    He had never shown such an attitude when he was with me, let alone towards Mother. Why was the Duke treating Erhan, his own flesh and blood, in such a manner……?

    “Erhan.”

    “Yes, Father.”

    It was a conversation between the Duke and Erhan. I wanted to raise my head and observe their expressions, but I was too afraid, so I quietly sipped my tea and perked up my ears.

    “You will tutor Oscar in his studies.”

    “Pffft……”

    Suddenly, the conversation took an unexpected turn. I nearly spat out the tea I had been holding in my mouth. Startled, I lifted my head to see that only Mother and I appeared surprised.

    “Being confined here without even being able to call for a tutor is largely the fault of our family, so you will assist him.”

    The Duke spoke matter-of-factly, as if it were a given. Meanwhile, I was the one whose face had turned deathly pale.

    ‘Why, why, why?’

    I couldn’t understand why he was making such a request. Moreover, shouldn’t he have asked more gently if he wanted to make a request?

    How could he speak in such a commanding tone? I looked to Mother for help, my face ashen, but…

    “Oh my! Really?”

    Mother… seemed delighted by the idea.

    Of course, while Mother could teach me general etiquette and dancing, she couldn’t handle the rest. That’s why she always lamented the lack of a tutor to assist with my studies. Certainly, we could have asked the Avengers, but I didn’t want that either.

    ‘I had already laid the groundwork to study sorcery in the first place.’

    It was only natural. My goal wasn’t to study leisurely.

    I had claimed to be dedicated to my studies to secretly learn sorcery, not because I actually needed a tutor. On the contrary, having no one around would have given me more freedom. However, out of courtesy, I had once mentioned, “It would have been nice to have a tutor. I have so many shortcomings,” and it seemed Mother had remembered this.

    “Erhan, I would be thrilled if you could help our Oscar.”

    Instead of dissuading the Duke, Mother agreed with his suggestion.

    “I think he regrets not being able to attend the academy due to his poor health. But we can’t regularly bring in outsiders either.”

    Erhan gazed at me as Mother expressed her regret.

    His gaze was as calm as a still water surface, but I knew that calmness could shatter at any moment.

    Learn from Erhan? No way. I wasn’t crazy enough to subject myself to uncomfortable tutoring from Erhan.

    Erhan was the heir to Serpentine. Even when Mother and I were unaware, he must have been shouldering many responsibilities. I kept shaking my head, signaling to Erhan with my eyes to refuse.

    “Mother, Father. Please don’t say such things.”

    Moreover, studying alone with Erhan? What kind of torture was that?

    Of course, I wanted to become closer to Erhan. Previously, it was simply because I had to charm him to survive, but now my curiosity about him had grown as well.

    However, that didn’t mean I wanted it to happen right away.

    “You know how busy His Highness is. Of course, His Highness will also…”

    Trailing off, I looked at Erhan, indicating that it was okay for him to refuse.

    Erhan must have been watching me the entire time because our eyes immediately locked.

    In fact, anyone would find this situation unpleasant. A biological father instructing his stepson to tutor his studies, and a stepmother joining in.

    The only way for me to survive this was for Erhan to refuse the proposal. So I slowly shook my head, signaling that he should definitely refuse. But then, Erhan raised the corner of his mouth ever so slightly in my direction.

    ‘Why are you smiling right now…?’

    Whether it was a habit or not, when Erhan smiled, both corners of his mouth didn’t rise simultaneously. One side would curl up first, as if twisted, and then the other side would follow belatedly. This time was no exception.

    The balance of his curled lips finally aligned. When the smirk finally became a smile, I was the only one who had turned pale and frozen, watching his smile.

    What on earth was he going to say with that smile? He wouldn’t suddenly slap me across the face, would he…?

    “For the sake of my little brother.”

    However, the words that followed were entirely unexpected.

    Erhan spoke as if driving a wedge.

    “Gladly.”

    As he looked at me, frozen in place, the corners of his mouth curved into an even deeper smile. Finally, Erhan hid his smiling lips behind his teacup, his eyes crinkling with amusement.

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