254 Smile

A long time has passed.

I have no idea.

In the corner of my mind, I remember glimpsing the rising sun a few times.

But those memories are so blurry I can’t tell if they’re true or not.

In contrast, my memories of him float and fall, continuing on and on.

Going to the orphanage together, working together, fighting the church together, going to the eastern region together…

Too many, far too many. Our memories together.

Each time I remembered them, sadness engulfed me again. My tears flowed free.

It felt like a short time, but also a long time…or perhaps something else.

No matter what, along this road I had shared so many moments with him.

All of them were lovely, gentle moments.

“Just stay who you are and keep moving forward. I’ll protect you from anyone else. So, milady, please leave yourself to me.”

Suddenly I recalled what he had said to me in that eastern city.

“You liar. I hate you…”

Couldn’t help but mock my own murmurs.

Who was really judging him in the end?

“That’s a lie. I love you.”

A sobbing, shuddering confession, ringing through my chest heavily.

Nothing mattered.

No matter how much pain I was in, the world kept spinning.

Leaving him behind.

We really were insignificant.

What was the meaning of such insignificant creatures existing, working hard to survive?

The tears I thought had dried up for good began to flow again.

Standing up suddenly, I walked toward the balcony shakily.

Where we had spoken so much in the past.

What I thought of my family, the future of my territory. All of this was nothing new.

Because it was the balcony of my office, it was slightly different from my own room’s balcony. Either way, I missed the view.

Outside the sunlight was eye-piercing. Narrowing my eyes, I raised my hand above my forehead.

My eyes had been soaked in tears and were hurt by the sunlight.

“Milady!”

Suddenly I heard a child’s voice.

Even my ears were malfunctioning? Even though I mocked myself, the voice sounded too real to ignore. So I turned my gaze to the garden below.

And then I saw Mina, and the children from the orphanage.

Although they were so small I could only barely make them out, the silhouettes were familiar enough to me.

But why were they here…?

A single question appeared in my mind.

“Are they worried about me?”

No one responded to my murmurs, but I found an answer to it anyways.

“Lady Iris! I hope you get your spirits back up soon!”

I could hear their shouts from afar.

Seemed like Mina was scolding the child who had shouted. Their voice had ceased quite suddenly.

Looking down at Mina, her hands on her hips with clear anger, I couldn’t help but laugh.

“I can still laugh…”

I was shocked by myself.

In so much pain, in so much suffering, in so much sadness.

Hating the Towair Kingdom, my own kingdom, everything.

And yet I was here, laughing out loud.

Warmth streaked through my chest.

“You are a gear of this country. I am the same. But we can’t meet. Even if we walk different paths, we are heading in the same direction. That’s why I can go anywhere and do anything.”

Words from the past appeared in my mind.

I started to ask myself questions.

Losing everything…is that true?

No more reason to live…is that true?

I naturally said no to these questions.

And in that moment I felt the cocoon separating me from the world break.

Whatever my reason for existing is doesn’t matter.

The results of my hard work were right in front of me.

Mina and the other people who lived on this land. Protecting them and constructing a future.

Me, who followed these goals, everyone who followed me, and the existence of these children…negating myself was negating all of this.

What I had lost was massive.

My heartache didn’t change.

But I hadn’t lost everything.

I had a direction to move in. Countless people’s lives and livelihoods were tied to me.

And they were moving forward with me, supporting me along the way.

“Sorry for disturbing you, Iris.”

When I returned from the balcony, my mother walked into my room.

“Ah, looks like you’re feeling better already.”

She said with a warm smile.

“Yes. Sorry for making you worry.”

“Don’t worry about it. Losing your composure to this degree, you really did love him, didn’t you?”

The moment my mother pointed this out blood flooded into my cheeks, but I recovered quickly.

“Yes, that’s true. Mother, I really am an idiot.”

“Why is that the case?”

“I didn’t know how important he was to me until I lost him. Heart-wrenchingly important.”

My emotions had passed the point of infatuation.

What I held in my heart was a determined love.

My mother’s expression became serious when she listened to what I said.

“We already bid each other farewell once. But my feelings didn’t disappear. I just thought even if we walked different paths, I would still be happy if he was here.”

“And is that not love?”

I tilted my head in genuine confusion.

“Even if he walks in a different direction from you, you still trust him and miss him. That’s how loveable his existence is. Am I right?”

My mother’s words made me smile helplessly.

“Yes. I love him.”

Not being able to tell him this was tragic.

I’m sure I’ll regret this forever.

“But there are other things I love too.”

Now it was my mother’s turn to tilt her head in curiosity.

“Such as?”

“This land. The people who live here. I already know the pain of loss, and yet I’m still here, exclaiming in sadness, treating the other thing I love like nothing. And yet if I lost this land, then I would really regret having neglected it.”

Placing both on a scale…both of them were irreplaceable.

No matter which one I lost, it was losing part of my world.

“Plus, for me to keep walking forward with them I can’t allow myself to do this. To neglect my people. I want to be someone they’re not ashamed of.”

“How admirable.”

My mother said suddenly.

“You are impressive right now. Iris, I was planning on giving you a good scolding if you still kept neglecting what you held most dear to you and crying all day.”

My hairs were standing on end because of her intimidating words.

Her forcefulness right now was making me shake in sheer anticipation of an actual lecture from her.

“But it seems like I worried for nothing. You know what you value most, and who values you most.”

“Thank you.”

“From now on, I’m sure there will be many times you’ll think of this and be sad. But please remember: although it’s important to have time for pain and grief, you can’t become their slave. You are still alive, after all.”

She took my hands in hers.

“I’ve told you how my mother died in the hands of bandits, right?”

I nodded heavily.

I couldn’t forget. My mother, who listened to my troubles when I was worried.

I couldn’t forget the conversation that spurred me into action.

“After losing my mother, I became a slave to grief. I couldn’t see the future. To kill those bandits, I survived through training day after day. Only thinking about what I’d lost, I forgot what was important to me at the time. In the end, I caused the people who cared about me endless concern. ‘You’re still alive, after all!’ My brother said to me.”

What my mother wanted to say to me was exactly what others had said to her.

“It wasn’t just me. I wasn’t the only one drowning in my own misery, and yet I was selfish enough to think I was the most unhappy person in the world. But this was just pride.”

“…Mother.”

“Grief over losing something you can’t win back is inevitable. But you can’t let it engulf you and neglect your surroundings, or escape into the past to hide from the present. That way, even the dead won’t be able to depart in peace. If this causes you to lose someone dear to you again, you’ll end up even more regretful. ‘If only I had done that then’: because you know the pain of loss, you’ll suffer even more. Farewells are inevitable. There’s a limited amount of time we can spend together in this world. But that’s why we miss each other. What matters is doing things you don’t regret in your limited time. And as you say, because there are people important to you here, don’t act in a way that would bring shame to them.”

Digesting my mother’s words, I carved them into my heart.

“Thank you, Mother.”

The moment I said this, my mother embraced me lightly.

“You’ve worked very hard, Iris. Really. I am impressed. You’ve found what matters to you.”

“Ah!”

That warmth, those words.

I couldn’t help but tear up again.

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