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    After a long silence, Erhan retorted, unable to hide his bewilderment.

    I couldn’t keep ignoring reality like this. I managed to open my eyes and looked around, only to find everyone staring at me as if I were a crazy person. It was undoubtedly one of the most horrible experiences of my life.

    “You?”

    Mother had an expression of utter incomprehension and seemed quite shocked.

    And the Duke also had a dumbfounded face. His usual dignity and decorum were nowhere to be seen, and he was surprised enough to slightly open his mouth.

    “Of course not. That was a joke.”

    I had to resolve this situation no matter what.

    “She said she liked me first. And this lady’s friendly tone…”

    I hurriedly read the invitation-cum-letter again. There was only an impeccably neat handwriting and a stiff tone that wouldn’t bleed a single drop of blood even if pricked, but I had to somehow squeeze something out.

    “So, I was moved.”

    “Really?”

    I almost bit my tongue.

    This letter containing dry content should never be shown to Mother. Because there wouldn’t be a single person in the world who would be moved by this.

    Although she didn’t say it, Mother seemed inwardly curious about the content. She probably didn’t get to see the content because she sorted the invitations by only looking at the family seals before immediately discarding the letters. So while she was curious, she didn’t seem to ask me to show it to her since it was a letter addressed to me.

    “Well, if you say so, I guess that’s how it is.”

    Mother had a displeased expression, but still, it was much better than when I said I was drawn to appearances earlier. Gone was the gaze that looked at me as if I were an alien, and she seemed to have regained her composure, returning to her usual gentle demeanor.

    “So you… understand?”

    “It’s not that I don’t have any concerns, but I support you. You’re not usually the type to be stubborn.”

    Thank goodness. She was generous enough to overlook this messy excuse.

    “Then when shall we set the wedding date?”

    “…”

    “How many children are you thinking of having?”

    “Pardon?”

    I asked back in disbelief, but Mother had a serious expression.

    It must have been a joke, but she asked so seriously that I couldn’t gauge if it was a joke or sincere.

    Anyway, if I tried to gloss over it here, the fact that I lied would be exposed.

    ‘Is it because it’s a world where you can get married with just a letter and a seal?’

    I couldn’t understand it with my common sense, but there were surprisingly many nobles who exchanged a few letters and went from engagement to marriage. Then, could Mother’s words be sincere? I sneaked a glance while slowly continuing my words.

    “Of course, if things go well… We’ll get engaged first, and marriage will come later. As for children, I don’t know. Whatever my future wife wants…”

    “Oh my, Oscar.”

    Mother laughed at my words.

    “You really do like that girl.”

    Only then did I realize that Mother had been testing me.

    I realized my mistake, but it was too late. When Mother acted so naturally, how could I have seen through it?

    I tried to say something but ended up just closing my mouth tightly.

    ‘It’s ridiculous to make more excuses at this point.’

    Even if I tried to make excuses now, saying that wasn’t the case, it would only make things weirder. In the end, I awkwardly smiled and nodded, and Mother looked at me with an intrigued gaze.

    “A banquet hosted by the Raven family… If it’s a 50th-anniversary celebration, you’ll have to stay there for quite a while. You’ll need to pay special attention to your health.”

    The 50th-anniversary celebration lasted for a whole week, so it was indeed a long time.

    Mother seemed worried about me staying in a different place for a week. Although I had become much healthier compared to before, it would still be difficult for her to easily give permission.

    “Oscar, do you really have to go? No matter what, the Raven family is quite far from here. You’ll have to stay there for several days, and I’m worried about you. Shall I go with you?”

    Although she wasn’t invited together, with Mother’s skills, she could sufficiently attend the banquet even without an invitation.

    “Mother. You can’t do that.”

    I understood her worry, but it would be odd for Mother, the Marchioness of Serpentine, to attend the Raven family’s banquet on top of that.

    ‘If Mother is there, it will be difficult for me to move around.’

    I intended to somehow take Zachary with me to this banquet. Even if I couldn’t bring Zachary, I planned to find a clue about a family that had exchanges with the Holy Empire.

    “I won’t be attending all the days of the banquet either. I plan to stay as briefly as possible, and of course, if my health deteriorates, I’ll return immediately.”

    “Indeed. It’s true that you need to experience the world a lot.”

    Even as she said that, Mother sighed deeply, wondering why I had to have that experience at the Raven family’s banquet of all places.

    “Then go and get that ankle treated right away.”

    It was a firm piece of advice and also a signal for the end of teatime.

    Having finished speaking, Mother lightly wiped the corners of her mouth and prepared to rise from her seat. Looking around, there was still tea left in Mother and the Duke’s teacups, while Erhan hadn’t even touched his lips to the tea.

    ‘I need to go and get treatment.’

    As soon as I tried to slowly get up from my seat and put my weight on the table, I had to frown. Just by slightly putting my foot down, the pain in my ankle was unbearable.

    “Grab on.”

    Suddenly, a sturdy arm was placed in front of me.

    It was Erhan. He held out his arm as if telling me to grab on quickly. When I blankly raised my gaze, he was waiting for me as if it were natural.

    I felt embarrassed, remembering that I had refused his support earlier. But Erhan had a face as if he had forgotten such a memory and simply extended his arm further so that I could comfortably lean on him.

    ‘I have no choice.’

    It was impossible for me to walk out of the dining room in this state anyway. Just as I was sneakily gauging the reactions, Erhan’s expression suddenly contorted. Puzzled by his suddenly furrowed brows, I also tried to turn and look in the direction of Erhan’s gaze.

    Screech. But before that, my chair was pulled back with a jerk.

    Of course, I, who was sitting in the chair, was also pulled back along with it. It was natural since the chair had suddenly moved, and Erhan’s outstretched arm became distant.

    “…Huh?”

    With a dumbfounded face, I looked at the distance that had opened up between Erhan and me, then turned my head. The cloth with the ghost’s eyes drawn on it was the first thing that caught my eye.

    ‘When did he even get here?’

    Zachary, who had appeared out of nowhere, was standing tall, holding the back of my chair. I was so startled that I stopped breathing for a moment. I couldn’t see his expression, but to pull this large and heavy chair in one go, even with me sitting on it, like pulling out a radish. Just how strong was he?

    Zachary, who acted as if nothing had happened, came in front of me and flattened his body as if kneeling. At first, I was taken aback, wondering what this action was, but then I saw his back and realized it meant for me to get on.

    ‘Could it be that he noticed something?’

    Still, this was the behavior of my servant. I sneaked a glance at the Duke, and he hadn’t left the dining room yet.

    I wondered if the Duke had noticed something strange, but it didn’t seem to be the case. He was simply standing in a posture to escort Mother.

    The Duke seemed to be more interested in Erhan and me rather than Zachary.

    “Hurry and grab on, Oscar.”

    While I was observing the Duke, Erhan had also moved. Erhan approached and ostentatiously held out his hand.

    Erhan’s outstretched hand, Zachary’s offered back.

    This felt like déjà vu. My head throbbed. It was because I had experienced a similar situation earlier.

    “Thanks, Brother.”

    Sighing, I grabbed Erhan’s hand instead of Zachary’s. It seemed inappropriate to show the Duke and his wife the sight of me getting on the back of a servant instead of my brother.

    The warmth of his hand was unexpectedly comforting. As if he didn’t expect me to hold his hand, Erhan’s hand trembled briefly. It was a very faint movement that only I could feel.

    Holding his hand, I gauged the Duke’s reaction.

    ‘As I thought, he was observing us.’

    The Duke’s gaze was on my hand that was in contact with Erhan’s. As I had thought before, he seemed to have a great interest in the relationship between Erhan and me. I lowered my gaze as if I hadn’t noticed.

    This level of not standing out to the Duke and not causing any inconvenience to Erhan was just right. As I slowly moved while being supported by Erhan, Mother and the Duke also moved.

    “I apologize for not being able to properly see you off due to my ankle.”

    “There’s no need for that.”

    The Duke lightly dismissed it as if an apology wasn’t necessary.

    “Get well soon.”

    “Yes, Mother.”

    Mother was concerned about my injured foot until the very end. If she didn’t have a schedule to attend a banquet this afternoon, she might have stayed by my side while I received treatment.

    After finishing my greetings with an awkward smile, I moved with Erhan only after both of them had left.

    “Ah.”

    It hurts. As I let out a small groan, Erhan clicked his tongue and pulled me closer.

    “It’s fine.”

    When I tried hard to endure it, Erhan looked at me as if I were foolish. As I avoided his gaze that pierced my cheek, I turned to look at Zachary, who had been on my mind since earlier.

    He was standing still as if he had never knelt down to carry me on his back. But what was strange was that unlike usual, he seemed to be looking not at me, but…

    ‘Why the Duke?’

    I felt like he was looking at the Duke.

    “Oscar, aren’t you coming?”

    “Ah, sorry.”

    At Erhan’s urging, I had no choice but to look at him and answer. Then, when I looked back again, Zachary was heading somewhere else.

    Surprisingly, Zachary didn’t follow me. He quickly disappeared among the servants following behind the Duke and his wife.

    I had an ominous feeling, but I had no choice but to follow Erhan.

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