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The cold wind broke the silence.

The relaxed stringed instrument melody was turned into noise, and the scenery in front of me turned yellow like the dress I held with all my might.

My identity was revealed.

‘Why? How?’

No, that might not matter now.

Should I get down on my knees and beg for forgiveness, or should I run away now?

I couldn’t think of anything to say, but I had to say something.

“I, I…”

“Just kidding.”

Michael cut my words lightly.
He slowly got up and walked over to me.
His bright red eyes fluttered in my blurred vision, as if it had been watered.

Michael looked at me for a moment and then picked up the fork that had fallen at my feet.
Then, he went back to his place and put the fork into the pomegranate that he had eaten.

Red juice oozed out like blood from the half-cut side of the fruit.

An awkward silence passed again. 

Pedro burst out laughing as if trying to relieve the tense atmosphere.

“What the hell is that joke? You have a really bad sense of humor!”

“…It’s not funny.
Please know the atmosphere.”

Hugo raised his glasses and scolded Michael.

Neither of the brothers seemed to take Michael’s words seriously.

But unlike them, Alan raised his eyebrows in anger.
He put down the wine glass he had not even touched.

Bang!

Even the music was cut off by the harsh sound.

“…Don’t joke like that again, Michael.”

Alan looked at Michael with an expression that was hard to believe that he was looking at his own child. 

“Yes.
I’m sorry.”

Michael politely bowed his head. 

Alan took a moment to breathe, then slowly raised his hand.

I clenched my teeth involuntarily, as if those broad palms were about to hit me.

“Why did you stop playing?” 

Alan’s hand turned to the bushes where the orchestra was hiding, not to slap me.

The servants, who had noticed the duke, hurriedly dispersed, and the orchestra played the Symphony of Spring again.

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As if nothing had happened, Pedro, the only family member to be munching on food, gulped, causing his Adam’s apple to move, and laughed.

“Father, straighten your face.
Michael says a lot of weird things.
Right, Brother?”

“…I told you not to invite him.”

Hugo murmured contemptuously and looked at my face.

I couldn’t smile at him as usual.
Because I knew it well.
Michael’s words are no joke.
Those red eyes were clearly saying this.

‘You’re fake, right?’

Maybe everyone here is making fun of me even though they know I’m fake?

Maybe this tea contained poison.

Maybe Alan would suddenly pull out his sword and cut my throat.

Maybe the reason he held a welcoming party was to watch me die while spewing blood…

“Lily, you recognized me the moment you were born.”

As I was trembling, Alan’s big hand touched my cheek.

I looked up at him, startled.

“When I put my finger on your little hand, you held it tight and didn’t let go.
It was only for me.”

Softly curved eyes.
Words full of certainty, affectionate eyes turned straight to me.

“I have never seen a child as smart as you.”

A gentle, warm spring breeze swept over Alan and me.

Pedro, who had been tapping the empty plate with a fork, jumped up and fell off the chair.

“Lily, shall we all play together to digest our food?”

“Sit down, Pedro.”

Before I could answer, Alan interrupted in a harsh tone.

“Lily hasn’t even eaten her main dish yet.”

Alan patted my shoulder.
Carefully, as if I was just a fragile glass doll.

To me, his tender hand felt as heavy as a lump of lead.

I wet my dry lips and turned to Pedro.

“Oh, Dad.
I want to do as Brother Pedro says.”

It was strange.
My 11-year-old third brother knew who I was, and Alan’s attitude.  

There was only one way to confirm the truth.

“Can’t we come back later and eat…? The, the weather is so nice.”

Alan thought for a moment and then nodded.
His large hand moved over my head.

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“What do you want to play? If you want, I’ll make a playground for you right now.
I’ll even call the best architect of the empire.”

“Lily, can I give you a ride?”

Pedro showed off his enthusiasm in a loud voice. 

Hugo stood up from his seat as if didn’t want to lose.

“There will be games that you can play with my magic.
I just finished reading how to play with a child with magic.” 

Everyone treated me with the same attitude as before Michael’s shocking remarks.

At least it doesn’t mean they’re going to kill me right away.

I secretly wiped the sweat from my hands and pointed to the maze of winding garden trees.

“How about… hide and seek?”

As I said that, I glanced at Michael.

‘Let’s talk separately.’

He seemed to understand my message well.

***

“Gasp, gasp…”

I stopped under the shade of a tree and wiped my sweat.

The grass tickling my ankles was like a sticky stick clinging onto me.

Then a cold voice came from behind.

“Hey, fire ant.”

Thud.

I felt like my heart was falling and my organs were moving.

I thought I’d never hear that nickname again.

I squeaked and looked back.
Under the peony arch, Michael stood, crooked, with his arms crossed.

As if he understood me entirely, with an arrogant look that didn’t look like a child.

“How did you know?”

“Aren’t you curious how much I know?” 

Michael came up to me without hesitation, and I unknowingly took a step backwards, but my back was blocked by a well-maintained garden tree.

I grabbed my skirt and tried to hide my trembling legs.

Then Michael laughed out loud.

“It’s simple how I knew it.
I saw it.
The day you were hiding like a rat in the corner of the castle.
With your real father.”

That night my dad came.

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Was Michael watching me abandoned by my father with those bright eyes?

“What’s next… It was easy.
You grew up in an ant cave.
Picking up food that has fallen to the ground and eating it pitifully.
He said your nickname was Fire Ant.”

Just hearing the old nickname took my breath away.

The feeling of those days when the earth seemed to go out at every moment was vivid.

“Oh, of course, the kidnapped Lily could have been living as a beggar by some chance.
At first, I really thought so.”

Michael took a step forward and touched his pretty face.

“However, if Lily were alive, she would be 10 years old now… but you are 9, right? Exactly nine years ago, on the last day of the carnival, I heard that you burst into tears.” 

“…What do you want?”

I asked with all my might.

Perhaps it was an unexpected reaction, Michael raised his eyebrows and laughed.

His eyes were asking if I was in a position to be bold.

But for me, I was really curious.
Because things were going weird.

“If you find out who I am, Dad, no.
You could have told the Duke.
But you’re still hiding it…” 

I don’t think he’s a good kid, enough to stand up and cover for me.

I swallowed the last words and glared at him.

“Well, what would be the most plausible answer?”

Michael stretched and hovered around me in a circle.

“I want to reveal it at a better timing, or that I hate to kill beggars who have sneaked into the Duke’s Castle, so I don’t want to kill you, or that it’s fun to see you trying hard.
There are many excuses… but I’ll just be honest.
About what I want.” 

Tuk.
Michael stopped a step in front of me and put his forearm on my head.

“Don’t reveal your identity forever.
Never, just live as Lilietta and die as Lilietta.”

“…What?”

What is he talking about? He knows I’m fake, and yet he wants me to live and die as Lilietta?

“If you do that, I will take care of your real father.
Assassination is still being studied, but it’s easy.”

Michael turned his wrist as he touched the thick ring.

An animal’s toenail, like a blade, popped out of the ring rim.

I was startled and reflexively opened my eyes.

Michael let out a light smile as if enjoying my reaction, then returned the ring with a single gesture.

“It’s good for you, isn’t it? You probably hate that kind of dad.
He smells terrible, too.”

Michael wrapped a single strand of my hair that was flowing down on his index finger.

I was so nervous that my stomach hurt, but I kept trying.

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“Why are you telling me to live as Lilietta?”

Freezing now doesn’t solve anything.

I had to figure out what the hell was going on.

“And you know.
It’s impossible to keep hiding.
If you don’t awaken your abilities on your 14th birthday anyway, everyone will noti……”

“Shh.” 

A red vest filled my eyes.

Michael locked me in his arms as if he was hiding me, and placed his index finger on the corner of his mouth.

He glanced at the sky.
The moment I looked up, a huge shadow was cast over my head.

“Liiiilyyyy! I found you!”

Pedro crushed me… No.Pedro hugged me. 

As a hide-and-seek player, he seemed to have jumped over the garden trees.

When I pulled out my face buried in his muscular chest with all my might, Michael’s smile caught my eyes.

“You got caught.
So don’t even dream of running away.”

Michael waved his hands gently.
He was making fun of me indefinitely.

***

The welcome party did not end with the flower garden dinner.

After dinner, it continued with an acrobatic show.

In the evening, after watching the sunset from the tower, we watched an opera at the theater attached to the castle.

As night fell, a firecracker with Lilietta’s initials flashed in the middle of the lake.

I was stuck with Lily’s family all day.

Alan and his sons only fell apart after they put me to bed.

Michael pushed a small note into my hand, pretending to say goodnight.

「Come to my greenhouse.」

A winding map was drawn on the back of the paper.
It was a secret way to the greenhouse. 

I waited until late at night and followed the directions, relying on a small lantern.

I didn’t meet anyone along the way.
Maybe it was because Michael taught me the back road, but somehow I had a strange feeling.

It was like the night my real dad came to visit.

A glass greenhouse, like a jewelry box, was located in the corner of the garden.

As soon as I opened the glass door and entered, Michael looked back at me, as if waiting.

“You’re here?” 

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