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    I later found out that Erhan and I didn’t have a significant age difference. Yet, we couldn’t become close. It was customary for children of noble families to attend an academy for ten years starting at the age of eight. Therefore, the day after meeting me, Erhan left to enroll in the academy.

    ‘My mother was strongly opposed to it for me.’

    I had been frail since birth, and my mother, who worried about me terribly, didn’t let me attend the academy.

    During the nine years that passed while I studied at home with private tutors, Erhan never once showed his face.

    ‘I never thought he would stay away for so long.’

    After parting that day, I had expected several times to see him again. The academy had a more liberal approach than I thought, offering many opportunities for him to visit the mansion.

    There were holidays and brief periods during minor events when Erhan could have visited, but he never did. Although we hadn’t formed a strong bond or grown close, this was still Erhan’s home.

    I had always been prepared to welcome him warmly whenever he returned from the academy, but it turned out to be in vain.

    ‘Although I heard he occasionally met with the duke at a villa near the capital for heir training.’

    I was told the duke often met Erhan to teach him something, being the heir to the family.

    Apparently, the duke was teaching Erhan about the sorcery passed down through our family. Since it was a family secret, the duke never took me along, meaning I had no chance to meet Erhan.

    ‘The duke is getting quite old.’

    Interestingly, my relationship with the duke was good. More than just good, it was quite close.

    It was hard to understand why Erhan was so afraid of him when I first arrived. I don’t know if it was thanks to my mother, but the duke was always generous towards me.

    The duke loved my mother. And while my mother didn’t give him much attention, she subtly allowed him to be close to her.

    They were somewhat well-matched from the start. My mother, a royal, and the duke, born into nobility. And though my mother often complained about the gloominess of the house, she seemed quite satisfied with the immense wealth accumulated by the family.

    As my mother and the duke grew closer, he began to show more interest in me.

    “Oscar, would you like to learn too?”

    When Erhan, the heir, was at the academy, and my mother was busy with social gatherings, the duke, unable to bear his boredom, sometimes tried to teach me something.

    I preferred not to put down the book I was reading, but not wanting to be thrown out of the house for my naivety, I agreed and sat beside him. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the Serpentine family was even more terrifying than I thought.

    The duke emphasized to me exactly twenty-eight times that the power of the Serpentine family came from instilling mental fear. Like the emblematic winding snake of our family, the Serpentine family aimed to overwhelm their targets with prolonged, gradual fear, ultimately subjugating their very souls.

    The sorcery of the Serpentine family was also used to train informants captured from other countries and to interrogate vicious criminals holding crucial information.

    “No one can touch us.”

    Even nobles secretly paid a hefty sum to request their services, and among these clients were members of the royal family. Knowing all their dirty secrets, the Serpentine family was untouchable by anyone.

    ‘This is horrifying.’

    As the duke described the ‘education’ process, the color drained from my face.

    Every time he referred to it as ‘education,’ I wondered how it was anything but torture, a term society seemed to have agreed upon for such acts.

    The duke was incredibly clever, intelligent, and brutal.

    He was acutely aware of the human body’s limits and specialized in mentally breaking people down.

    ‘My mother feels affection for such a person?’

    Of course, the duke did not divulge the intricate details to me, perhaps those reserved only for the heir. But even hearing about the initial stages of mind invasion felt like it was shattering my own psyche. Nonetheless, I asked a few questions out of politeness, indicating my interest.

    “You seem very intrigued.”

    The duke was delighted.

    By my sixth year in the house, he said, “Now that you are my second son, you should know this too,” and began to slightly reveal aspects of the sorcery to me.

    The sorcery I learned in detail was even more dreadful. After realizing that the ingredients used in the sorcery included the blood and flesh of various bizarre creatures, I didn’t want to touch them.

    “Due to my poor health and limited understanding, I’m unable to follow your teachings, Father. I’m sorry.”

    I subtly refused each time, pretending to cough conspicuously, but paradoxically, the duke seemed to open up to me even more with each refusal, driving me almost to madness.

    “You are truly humble. But the weaker one is, the more one needs to understand the world. Look, this sorcery induces nightmares every night. You engrave this ancient script on a claw from a beast in the Atia Forest, then sew it with thread to the target’s Adam’s apple for two days. It repeatedly inflicts pain on the most intimate parts of the target’s mind…”

    Why on earth would anyone sew a claw to a person’s throat, and why tell me about such a thing? I had neither the hobby nor the interest in devouring people’s minds in such a way.

    Of course, I didn’t show my disapproval. There was no harm in appearing favorable to the duke.

    Even so, the duke often watched for my mother’s cues and didn’t teach me on days she returned to the mansion from the capital. That’s because whenever she saw the duke, she would exclaim, “What exactly are you teaching the child?!”

    “Master.”

    …Oh, that startled me.

    Startled by the call, my heart raced wildly. I rubbed my chest with trembling hands. Even after nine years, I was still easily frightened.

    Such a person as the second son of the Serpentine family… could I really be alright?

    “Sorry for the delay.”

    The servant hurried me, indicating that my mother and the duke must have already arrived at the dining room.

    I quickly tried to adjust my complicated outfit. Initially, I couldn’t understand how to wear it, but now I was fairly adept, and I had to be. The servants were ‘educated’ not to touch our bodies.

    “Let’s hurry.”

    As I opened the door, six servants greeted me with their heads deeply bowed, perfectly aligned. Among them, the only one permitted to speak, the servant who woke me earlier, greeted me and then started to lead the way.

    I had grown tall enough to see outside the window if I stood on tiptoe, a significant change from when I could only look up at it. Noticing the bleak weather signaling the transition from autumn to winter, I walked towards the dining room.

    Creak.

    As soon as I arrived, the servants opened the door, revealing two figures sitting at the long table stretching from the entrance to the far end.

    “Good morning.”

    “Oscar, you’re here.”

    Was it because of the dream I had last night?

    I could sense how much my mother had aged compared to before as she looked at me. Yet, she still possessed a youthful beauty. Approaching her, who seemed to have been up since dawn and elaborately dressed, the duke seated at the central head of the table also spoke to me.

    “Are you not feeling well today?”

    “No, I’m fine.”

    “Then why do you look so pale?”

    She gazed at me with her characteristic look of concern, as if she would touch my cheek at any moment. Being frail since birth, I frequently fell ill even though I was well-fed and well-rested here.

    Whenever a cold went around the duke’s domain, I inevitably caught it, and on slightly warmer days, I would quickly become weak and fall sick. In summer, severe anemia often caused me to faint, and sometimes I even suffered from harsh bronchitis, struggling to speak and coughing up blood.

    “I naturally look pale.”

    So, there was no need to be surprised at me looking ill.

    Responding with a hint of jest, my mother looked at me incredulously, as if questioning the timing of my joke. The duke, finding it somewhat amusing, chuckled but then had to endure my mother’s sharp glare when she noticed.

    “The child is so ill, and you just laugh?”

    “Adel, I…”

    The duke couldn’t move under my mother’s stern gaze. Pretending not to notice, I bowed my head and began to eat diligently.

    It was heartwarming to see them getting along so well.

    ‘As long as their affection doesn’t fade, they probably won’t cast me out.’

    A sense of relief washed over me, knowing that my situation was different from the stories I had heard in my previous life, where new family members were often tormented and driven away.

    ‘Of course, what happens when the heir takes over is uncertain.’

    With no particular skills or abilities, I, a fragile being, might have to spend my life in this uncertain family, even after my mother’s passing. Occasionally, the thought of Erhan, who might dislike me, filled me with anxiety.

    “Have you finished eating?”

    “Yes.”

    The duke inquired if I had finished my meal and then stood up from his seat, followed by my mother. It seemed they intended to have tea together separately, so I too rose, intending to return to my room. However, as I was about to leave, the duke quietly called out to me.

    “Oscar, there’s a place we need to go.”

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