As dusk settled over the landscape, Flora finally arrived at the grand Ars Manor. The party had commenced hours before, and she had chosen to make a fashionable entrance by arriving a little late. After all, there were no strict rules about punctuality; some guests purposely timed their arrival to sync with the liveliness of the event.
As she stepped down from her carriage, Flora felt a surprising sense of tranquility. Contrary to what she had expected, there were very few people milling about, and the number of parked carriages was scarce. Unbeknownst to her, the large early arrivals had already filled the courtyard, prompting the attendants to send back the excess carriages.
Flora pondered whether the rumors of a grand party were exaggerated, but her doubts vanished as she ascended the stairs. The wide-open entrance revealed a world transformed—the party hall was aglow with brightness, almost like daylight. It was a scene she hadn’t expected in a place she once knew as a quiet retreat.
The atmosphere hummed with excitement, and distinguished guests graced the occasion. Flora, used to being the center of attention at gatherings, felt an unfamiliar sense of exclusion as she entered the bustling hall.
“Oh, Anika Flora!”
Flora breathed a sigh of relief as she heard the familiar voice amidst the bustling party. The atmosphere had overwhelmed her, leaving her feeling lost and unnoticed. Three Anikas approached her, and Flora put on a forced smile, responding to the one who called her.
“Anika Kasey, you seem to be in high spirits,” Flora said, observing Kasey’s slightly tipsy yet radiant face, clutching a half-filled glass.
“Just in time, Flora! This party is incredible—the food, the ambiance, everything. I’ve had more conversations today than ever before,” Kasey said, her eyes subtly holding something Flora couldn’t quite decipher, whether it was the effects of alcohol or intentional.
“It has been a while. I wasn’t sure if I’d see you here,” Flora replied with a smile, choosing not to delve into the unspoken thoughts.
Kasey gestured dramatically around the room and then pointed to a specific area. “Anika Jin is over there. Let’s go say hello, but she seems to be surrounded by a crowd at the moment, so we’ll have to wait.”
“Thank you for letting me know,” Flora said, turning away and lightly biting her lip. She hadn’t been to the annex, and it appeared that Jin had become a prominent figure there in her absence.
The image of Anikas vying for Jin’s attention flashed in Flora’s mind. She could picture Kasey and others trying to impress Jin with their chatter, while Jin, in her graceful manner, would pretend indifference while secretly enjoying the attention.
Some might have labeled Flora as too clingy to Jin, and there had indeed been moments when she felt that way. But she believed she had worked hard over the past three years to carve her own identity as Anika Flora, separate from being just Jin’s friend. She didn’t want to go back to the dynamics of three years ago.
If only His Holiness hadn’t requested my presence, she thought, feeling resentful towards Sang-je for insisting that she attend the party. Nevertheless, she knew she couldn’t show any signs of wanting to escape now. Leaving without meeting Jin would only fuel more gossip behind her back.
Flora walked with no specific direction, following Kasey’s indication to find Jin. As expected, there was a crowd surrounding her. Flora spotted Jin in the midst of exchanging greetings with a middle-aged Anika in an embrace.
In a hushed voice, Anika Liza expressed her gratitude to Eugene.
“I am truly indebted to you.”
With the crowd around them, she couldn’t reveal the real reason for her appreciation—the fact that Jin had provided the cure. Her son had advised her to keep it a secret, and so she hesitated to mention it, even though she wanted to express her thanks more openly.
With a deep understanding of the unspoken message conveyed by Liza, Eugene smiled warmly. “It’s an honor to have you here, esteemed Anika Liza,” she said, acknowledging her presence with respect.
Liza’s affectionate gaze fell upon her son, Myung King, who stood beside her. Their eyes met, and Eugene’s natural and warm smile put her at ease.
She shared her recent journey’s difficulties, how the kind King had consoled her during the tiresome trip and presented her with an invitation to the party. Unfortunately, she had caught a cold during the journey, and the illness had plagued her throughout. At one point, she had feared not being able to attend today’s event.
“But now you’ve recovered?” Eugene inquired, concerned.
“Yes,” Liza replied, relief in her voice. She described how the constant shivering and restless nights had been replaced by deep, sound sleep. It felt like a miraculous blessing to experience such peaceful rest again.
“I’m glad to see you looking much better,” Eugene said, feeling proud of the life-saving abilities she possessed. The tragedy she had glimpsed in the future, the loss of Myung King’s mother and his subsequent grief, had now been rewritten.
Eugene had always admired Anika Liza’s kindness. Unlike other Anikas, Liza had made a different choice; she accepted a child instead of rejecting him. The gentle look in Myung King’s eyes when he gazed at his mother spoke volumes about the love they shared.
In her heart, Eugene yearned for a private conversation with Liza. She wanted to know why Liza had returned to the kingdom and how she felt about Sang-je and her deceased husband.
Liza’s gaze shifted between Eugene and Kasser, and she spoke with a touch of regret to Myung King. “The King should consider marriage soon. He’s of age, but he’s reluctant to leave my side, which worries me.”
Myung King blushed and coughed awkwardly. “Mother, we shouldn’t discuss such matters here…”