The only source of sound came from the carriage wheels.
It was otherwise quiet, but not overwhelmingly so.
Sir Leonhard’s regard softened, as though humbled by the dazzling sun.
“How strong you are,” he lamented.
I tilted my head to the side. I wasn’t sure what he meant. The mere thought of being rejected by him had brought the waterworks to my eyes. What strength can he possibly speak of in a child like me?
He smiled warmly at my bewilderment, at ease, and I held my breath, spellbound. The last tears fell, and he wiped away the vestige.
Sir Leonhard rose off the floor and sank into his seat with a fwump. His moves lacking the usual polish of a knight. For some reason, my heart pounded at the contrast.
I must be attracted to manly men, I thought, my mind distractedly going off in the wrong direction.
Intertwined hands placed in the gap between his knees, Sir Leonhard leaned forward. The smile disappeared from his face as he fixed his eyes on me.
“Princess,” he began with utmost formality.
I flinched. This was it. The moment he reveals he already loves another or something.
As if he was trying to bring down my guard, his tone gentled.
“Will you listen to my story?”
“Your story?” I asked uncertainly.
He nodded. “Yes.”
His eyebrows dipped down and his perfect lips stretched into a strained smile.
“In all honesty, I never intended to tell you this story. True, it may not be appropriate table conversation for a princess of the realm, but more than anything else, I did want to lose dignity. You must be disappointed.”
There his smile turned rueful.
I wanted to tell him he was wrong, but coming from someone who hadn’t even heard the story yet, it wouldn’t have been believable. It would be even worse if he politely overlooked it, so I kept my mouth shut, and waited for him to continue.
“And yet I wish to be truthful with you.”
I froze, taken aback by the intensity and directness of his language. My heart might have stopped.
Heat slowly gathered in my face. The delight, bosom buddies with the crippling shyness, made me want to run off screaming my head off. My heart might have stopped? It was healthy and beating like a drum!
Sir Leonhard himself was unruffled. He looked at me strangely, as if he wasn’t aware of any deeper meaning behind his words.
I felt silly, but I couldn’t help breaking into a smile. He said he wanted to be truthful. Instead of dismissing it, and I wouldn’t blame him if he did, he tried his best to diffuse the situation.
He was opening himself to me, how could I not be exhilarated?
“I’m honored, Sir Leon,” I said honestly. Then I cleaned up my expression. “Will you share your story with me?”
“As you must be aware, I still remain a bachelor this year, but I do not particularly believe it will always hold true.”
I stared at him, blinking several times. “Is that…so?”
I hadn’t expected him to suddenly mention this. Sure, his status as a bachelor was no hard tragedy for me personally, but I did find it rather unusual.
Here was a handsome man with no visible deformities, who held an important office serving as the leader to the royal knights. He possessed a great character, and devoted subordinates. As the “von” in his name indicated, he was a member of the aristocracy, and his blood came straight from the honorable lineage of Olsen.
No way in hell had a catch like him had been overlooked. None.
In fact, there was a mountain of women lined up to marry him, yet he managed to stay a bachelor all these years. It wasn’t clear why, but I thought there must have a reason.
Perhaps the uncertainty of not knowing when death will come knocking in his line of work, or a desire to not create bonds with people who will mourn him held him back. Maybe he didn’t want to raise the number of people he must protect.
“My behavior in my adolescence was far from exemplary.”
Smiling wryly, he awkwardly scratched at his cheek with a finger.
He beat around the bush, possibly out of consideration for my sensibilities, but without pulling any punches he’s saying he fooled around.
A little girl who hasn’t grown up would probably be shocked, but I can’t say I was. I don’t deny dreaming of him, but that hardly meant I glorified him.
The past was what it was. The one I liked was not his younger, mischievous self. It was the calm and composed man he had become after passing through that stage.
“Really?” I said blandly. His eyes flickered with surprise.
My response was probably not the proper response a young maiden at threshold of puberty, who also happened to be in love, but I was past twenty on the inside. I was not so naive as to blindly defend him.
He watched me with interest, but returned to his story. He probably thought I hadn’t understood the brushed over portions. I preferred that as well.
“When I toned down, there was the fact that I had a fiancee. She was a proper and refined lady, too good for the likes of me.”
Actually, I take back what I said.
Even though we were discussing the past, it still hurt a lot.
It didn’t register when he spoke about it indirectly, but intimately knowing the details about this woman he was supposed to have married was making me fret.
“She was demure, meek, and never once complained. Without flattering myself, I do believe she was in love with me.”
As the image of a beautiful woman standing next to him became clearer and clearer, more and more pain stabbed at my heart. I’m sure they looked perfect together, I tortured myself.
“But I could not respond to her feelings,” he continued, head slightly bowed.
“Huh?” I snapped back to my senses.
“She came to me in tears, saying it was too hard. That whenever she was with me, there was a big distance between us and it pained her.”
I had no words.
There was nothing out of the ordinary in his expression, but he sounded like a man seeking repentance. How do I respond to that?
“Though my intentions were to cherish her, at that moment, I realized I’ve never truly loved someone from the bottom of my heart. Maybe I’m lacking something essential as a human being,” he confessed indifferently. As if it was nothing. “I tried to love her. I liked her, but it never went deeper. Would it affect me at all if she had found another man to love and left? Imagining it did nothing to move my heart. In fact, I remember feeling the relief of release from a heavy burden. I disgust myself,” he spat out.
There was nothing I could say. All I could do was bite my lip.
“She was disappointed in me and decided to enter a convent. I did not stop her. In fact, I never had the right to do so.”
“Afterwards, I received many marriage proposals, but I continued to refuse them all. It would only end in tears for the next one.”
That is the end of my story, he concluded.
He was watching me with a calm expression as he finished. I looked away uncomfortably, not because I was unfeeling, but for lack of words. I saw resignation in his eyes.
“Have I disappointed you?”
I shook my head.
Perhaps he told me about his past to make make me give up on him, so that I don’t waste time nursing a love that won’t be returned. So that I don’t have to cry in the future.
Well, after I heard this story, I definitely thought my chances were even lower than before. How was I to succeed when neither his fiancee nor all of the other beautiful girls out there have failed?
Even so, asking me to give up was a different story. If I could so easily back off and say I quit, it wouldn’t be this complicated.
So Sir Leonhard can’t bring himself to love others.
That wasn’t a good enough excuse to stop loving him. My feelings were mine. The only one who can decide whether to end them or nurture them was me.
“Sir Leon, may I ask you one thing?”
“What is it?”
“Have I become your burden?” I asked quietly. That was all I wanted to confirm. Loving him was my choice, but was I causing him hardship, even though it was not my intent? No matter how determined I am, I’ll still be disheartened if he tells me upfront I’m a bother.
It seems like my dread had been unwarranted.
Sir Leonhard denied it immediately. “Never!” His voice was raised, and he sounded surprised.
“If that’s the case, then I don’t want to give up.”
His eyes opened wide. He seemed taken aback.
Well, of course he’d be surprised. He tells someone he can’t fall in love, and she comes back saying she won’t give up, I thought. As if it was someone else’s problem.
Either way, I was a lost cause.
It suddenly seemed funny to me. I giggled as I watched Sir Leonhard struggle for words.
“Please let me hold on to these feelings.”
Until you find the one for you.
Until I can these feelings behind me.
Please don’t let it end this way.
I put my honest wish into my words.
After a moment of stillness, he blew out a long breath. His eyes seemed to tear as he smiled.
“I am truly no match for you.”