※This chapter is in Klaus’s POV.
A woman cried out at the same time the rattan basket fell. White sheets were strewn across the corridor.
Was she nervous? Embarrassed? The young maid’s face stiffened as she apologized in a thin voice.
“M-my deepest apologies.”
She tried to fold the sheets in a panic, but her hands were shaking and they fell again. I picked up the basket that had rolled to my feet, and placed it next to her. She looked up, and her hazel eyes widened when I held out a hand.
“Please stand. You’ll get dirty.”
A little forcefully, I took her hand and made her stand up. She froze, hardly daring to breathe. Letting go, I gathered the laundry and lightly dusted it before dropping it back into the basket.
“Here you are.”
I handed it to her, almost shoving.
Shaken as she was, she accepted it. I couldn’t help smiling bitterly when she looked up at me with those eyes, like a frightened little creature’s.
“You’re welcome. Please take care not to injure yourself.”
Her face flushed. She nodded vigorously.
“P-Please excuse me—!”
She turned on her heels and hurried away with the speed unfitting of someone raised in a decent family. As I watched her retreating figure, I touched my cheek.
I stood there feeling depressed when someone hailed me from behind.
“Heeey, ladies’ man!”
I turned around to find my fellow knight, Dennis, standing there.
“Even though it wasn’t your intention, don’t lead innocent girls astray. Don’t you pity them?”
“Don’t slander others. All I did was pick up the laundry.”
“‘All’ you say? I find it highly unusual that you would do something like that,” he teased.
I frowned, but I couldn’t refute him. Normally, I would’ve given the basket a glance and walked by. Why, then, did I do that? The answer was simple.
“Why are you in such good spirits?” he asked.
As he said, I was in an excellent mood. If I elaborate, I’m downright festive.
“You shouldn’t lie. The young maids are in a tizzy because a curt guy like you is suddenly all sunshine and smiles. And then there was your superior officer, the one who dislikes you. He was trembling with fear, wondering if you had finally gone insane.”
He was making a lot of noise, but I found it hard to deny. I knew which incident he referred to.
Whenever my superior officer and I passed each other, he always made snide remarks. Usually, I stared at him coldly and kept my silence, but this time I slipped. I’d smiled at him brightly and said, “I’ll work hard.” I wouldn’t blame him for doubting my sanity.
“Honestly, what happened? Did your precious master praise you or something?”
“No. If that was the case, I wouldn’t be like this.”
“Oh really now? Spare me.”
Dennis gave a big, exaggerated shrug. He seemed to be mocking me with his faint smile.
I was irritated. “If you have no business with me, then I’m leaving.”
I walked away and he didn’t stop me.
“You can celebrate, but you shouldn’t be a bother to your master,” he called out from behind with his relaxed, drawling voice but I didn’t look back.
He’s ridiculous, I thought.
Even if I was festive, I’d never relax my guard. I’d never allow myself to hinder Princess Rosemarie.
My resolution was solid but none of it appeared on my face as I completed my work dispassionately.
Before I knew it, it was already night.
I’ve finished handing over the more urgent matters, but I didn’t return to my own room. Instead, I headed to a different location.
Lamps were lit in equal intervals, the palace shone even brighter in the night. I passed through, aiming for the training grounds at the far end. All signs of human activity gradually fell away, and a nocturnal bird cried in the distance. The fire for the watchmen crackled with the stirring of a semi-warm wind.
My soles crunched as I stepped on the pebbled ground. The training ground was still, the hustle and bustle of the day seemed unreal. In the pitch dark, the light from the fire behind me stretched my shadow.
“You’re here,” said a low voice. It went straight to the point.
A long shadow leaning against the wall shifted. At the same time, the surrounding area illuminated faintly; the clouds parted, and the moon seemed like it was showing its face.
To my eyes, which had begun adjusting to the darkness, this light was almost dazzling.
I promptly closed them, only to slowly open them again.
A dark figure stood in front of me, the pale moon behind him. The passing breeze blew at the hem of his uniform and his black hair. He was outlined by the moonlight, and his dark eyes were focused on me.
I couldn’t see his expression, but this sensation, as if a sword was being held to my throat, instinctively had me holding my breath. I was overpowered by a single look.
“What is your order… commander?” I said to cover up my agitation. When I finished speaking, he—Leonhard von Olsen—silently tossed something at me. It flew in an arc and I caught it with my left hand. It was a training sword with a blunt edge.
“Don’t tell me the reason I was called here was—”
“For training, as you can see. You’ll practice every day until the day you depart.”
“What?! I haven’t heard of this!” I immediately balked, but he turned a deaf ear to my complaints and took off the coat of his uniform. “I may not look the part, but I am busy.”
“What a coincidence. So am I,” he remarked unsympathetically while rotating his shoulders.
Of course, there was never a comparison when it came to the difference in our workloads. Even though I had a pile work I needed complete in advance, it was nothing to write about considering the duties he had on top of his position.
Tsk. I held my tongue.
“If that’s all you want to say, then get ready.”
There was much I wanted to say, but when the commander told you to do something, you did it. I realized it would do me no good to protest, and reluctantly tugged at the collar of my uniform.
I grumbled to myself. “Why all of a sudden—”
“I’ve been watching you recently, and today I had the idea.”
My shoulders stiffened at his response. The words of my colleague flashed through my mind.
“Judging from your reaction, it seems like you’re already aware of it.”
I said nothing.
“Silence is considered the same as confirmation.”
“Hardly… It’s not like I’ve been a hindrance to anyone.”
“I’m saying it because you can’t bring yourself to admit it. Such a frivolous man can hardly be trusted with Her Highness.”
A sharp sound whistled through the air.
Like the eyes of a beast in the dark, they reflected the moon’s light.
Cold sweat dripped down my back as I was directly assaulted by his bloodthirst.
Even though the sword stabbed at me was not inteded for killing, I had a hard time breathing. A single movement and I’d be dead.
The “black lion” once feared on the battlefield had appeared before my eyes.
“Her Highness is the treasure of this kingdom. A jewel which should never be lost. Entrust her to a man who can’t even follow these slow sword movements? Not a chance,” he spat.
I was dumbfounded. Although I wasn’t aware when his sword moved, was there a need to mock me!
But when I looked closely, I noticed the hand he held the sword with was not his dominant one. I was stunned he could move so well even with his left hand.
“Show me if you can even stand against me with my dominant hand tied.”
He pulled back the sword’s point and brought it down in an arc. At the same time, the intimidating aura disappeared, and I breathed out with all the energy in my lungs. My heart hammered in my ears, disgustingly so.
“If you think it’s impossible, say it quick. I’ll choose someone else.”
“No!” I negated instantly, breathing ragged.
Hand over my duty as Princess Rosemarie’s protector to someone else? Not a chance here either!
“This is my sworn duty. I will not give it to anyone.”
I put my belly into it, and glared at him almost challengingly, but his expression did not crack even a little.
“Don’t push yourself. There are others who are qualified,” he said smoothly.
Was I to let him get away with saying that?
“Allow me to make you swallow those words…”
I smiled dangerously. I knew I was rising to his clear provocation, but there was no way I’d back down after this. My sword readied.
The corners of his mouth lifted up as he watched me.
He was full of calm and confidence. It irked me.