In a drawing room nearby, a quivering voice that sounded as though it was cowering on the ground could be heard.
“I-I must have been mistaken.”
Her ears, which could be seen between the strands of her hair, were red and the hands she had placed clenched on her knees were trembling.
Just thinking about what had happened earlier was making her undeniably embarrassed.
After coming across the two in the hallway, Leo had separated them.
Holding Irina’s hand, Delphia then explained that the clothes the duke had been wearing was called a nightgown, which was an attire that was originally meant to be worn loosely on the body.
Oh my god, to think that there were men’s clothes, much less women’s, that would show off so much skin.
“I didn’t know the duke’s clothes were meant to be that liberating and had committed such an error…”
“I have never worn anything you can consider ‘liberating’.”
After changing into clothes that wrapped around his neck as tightly as Irina’s preference, Winfried let out a deep sigh.
He pressed down firmly on his darkened eyes.
‘I have no idea how this started.’
It was yet another sleepless day.
The hallucinations and dreams that would make his head spin had barely simmered down by the time the morning son rose.
It had taken all of his energy to lay on the sofa before he accepted the sweet approach of a fog-like sleep.
How long had he slept for? An hour? Two?
He could remember his body moving in a daze.
And then the fog had faded away.
Before someone entered the room.
The intruder had moved carefully so as not to make a sound but Winfried had already awoken the moment the door opened.
Thud, thud, thud.
He was certain the intruder must have been walking on carpet whilst wearing slippers.
But Winfried could only hear them as the sounds of combat boots kicking off the ground.
His body had tensed up instantly.
A single footstep, the swaying of a single strand of hair.
Every movement was sending his body into high alert.
The light sleep that blanketed over him had long disappeared.
He stretched his arm out.
Something fell into his grip.
What was it, a dagger? Or, a stiletto? (1)
His senses began to tingle.
His eyes were closed but they might as well be open.
He was waiting for the chance to subdue the intruder at one go.
Wifried held his breath.
The moment the intruder turned their back on him.
The intruder fell to the ground.
But something was amiss.
The intruder was too small and most noticeably, they did not smell of blood.
Rather, a scent that could not be smelled anywhere on the battlefield tickled the tip of his nose.
The scent did not remind him of anything in particular at first.
It reminded him of greenery, no, it was the smell of wheatfields growing on soil untainted by a single drop of human blood.
It was a smell he would never come across on the battlefield.
It was only then did his infinitely narrow view return to normal.
It was not an intruder he had climbed atop of and overpowered.
It was the Count and Countess Leonid’s only daughter, the one whom he had brought home just the day before yesterday.
What had he done?
Winfried quickly retreated from her.
He had turned his head away and continued sweeping his face down with his hands as he did not want to show her his darkened expression filled with self-loathing.
“… Why are you here?”
She was someone that meant a lot to him.
Someone he had to cherish.
Someone he owed a lot to.
And he hated himself for attacking such a person so senselessly.
He bit his lips.
“I asked why you are here.”
“Well, to bring you your meal… I heard you haven’t eaten anything since yesterday.”
“… Who asked you to do that? Was it Delphia? Or the chef?”
Who on earth made her do work?
She slightly bit her lips.
Regardless of whether she was still biting her lips, she continued talking.
“I said I wanted to do it.”
A deep sigh fell from between his lips.
Just the day before, while speaking as she was now, she had been bleeding, and now, she almost got hurt again.
There had been a weird pang in his chest.
And his words had sharpened themselves unintentionally.
… Regardless, he should not have said that.
All he could muster to say afterward were excuses.
Sloppily, cleaning up after himself.
“The meal, it’s warm.”
After coming back to his senses upon hearing words he had not expected from her, Winfried whipped his head around but the door had long closed.
‘That’s why I had followed her out to apologise.’
But he had not expected to be grabbed by the collar.
Being swept up in a series of events he had never anticipated, Winfried pressed on his eyes again.
Having not slept enough, his eyes protested against the light.
He wanted to sleep.
But at the same time, he did not want to.
‘Is he mad?’
Irina azed at the Duke of Winfried, who had been standing without a word.
The duke remained still at his spot.
He must have been so furious and taken aback that his expression had hardened.
’Is he still angry at me?’
Irina was well aware that it was a crime to have thoughtlessly laid her hands on an aristocrat’s body.
‘I could see his stomach!’
Oh my god, it was so shameful!
H-how could he just expose his stomach like that and leave his room being almost half-naked in broad daylight?
‘H-how could he!’
Just thinking about what happened earlier was making her eyes whirl.
Irina covered her face with her palms.
But in spite of herself, she continued to sneak some glances at Winfried from between her fingers who continued to stand still.
‘… But didn’t it feel sort of different?’
Until now, the stomachs of the men she had come across all varied in shapes and sizes.
But from what she had seen, weren’t their tummies meant to either stick out or be caved in?
But the duke’s looked so hard and there were some cracks on it…
Their eyes met.
Irina, who had been sneaking looks at Winfried through her fingers, lowered her head in surprise.
Irina turned her head upon hearing her name being called.
“What on earth are you thinking about for your face to be so red?”
If there was a hole, she wanted to crawl inside and hide in shame.
Irina lowered her head even further to hide her reddening face.
She was unaware that her ears, that could be seen between the strands of her hair, were also turning so red they looked close to exploding.
Irina raised her head.
She was about to protest but her lips froze.
The Duke of Winfried was smiling at her.
For some reason, she found herself distracted and she could only blink, having forgotten what she was planning on saying.
“You said I was shameless but I think you are more, my lady.”
“No, I’m really not.”
Irina sneakily turned her head away.
“You’re peeking again, aren’t you?”
“No? I’m just drinking this tea, cough!”
The taste of the tea she had hurriedly gulped down to avoid getting caught sneaking glances was strange.
‘I-is it supposed to be this bitter?’
Did aristocrats typically drink tea as bitter as this?
Staring at the teacup, Irina sneakily pushed it away.
Winfried, who had approached her in the meantime murmured softly.
“You have marks on your wrist.”
It must have been the wrist the duke had grabbed earlier.
Surprised by his apology, Irina stared at Winfried.
Parting his lips, he apologised.
“I was having a nightmare when you came which was why I reacted so aggressively.”
He reached his hand out and carefully brushed against the marks on her wrist.
“If you leave it be, it might bruise.”
“I’ll call for our in-house physician, Mister Veron.
You should get treated before it bruises.”
Winfried turned around.
Just as he was about to leave the drawing room, Irina quickly grabbed the hem of his clothes.
As though wondering what was the matter, he stopped walking and looked down at Irina.
“You don’t need to call for one.”
“It’ll be better for you to see one.”
“It’ll disappear soon.”
Letting go of his clothes, Irina rubbed her wrist again.
She did not want to waste money going to a physician just for this.
But she also had other plans.
Irina glanced at Winfried.
“Instead of calling for a doctor, could you do me a favour instead?”
He nodded as if he was letting her continue.
Irina smiled and revealed her wish to execute her grand plan.
“Hire me as a maid of this estate!”
Instantly, silence befell the two.
Sweeping his hair back, Winfried sighed.
“As I said earlier, you are a guest in this estate.
You may remain here comfortably.”
Irina bit her lips.
“If I don’t work…”
“You little rat! How dare you skip cleaning this morning?”
A shrill voice echoed in her ears.
It had been just another day in the middle of winer.
A day when those who had slept on roadsides the night before would have frozen to death.
“You, do you know what they call people who don’t work and eat and play all day? A bum!”
‘I remember getting hit a lot back then.’
But what scared her more than getting hit was getting kicked out.
She did not want to die.
She wanted to live.
From that day forth, whether she felt feverish or was limping badly because of a fall the day before, she never took a break from work.
The work she did allowed Irina, or Rhett, to remain in that rundown inn.
Irina inhaled sharply.
“Work is the reason why I can continue to stay here.”
“I cannot just stay here.
If I do, then I can get kicked out at any given moment.”
She had no plans on leaving and she could not let herself return to the slums.
She had no idea what happened to Ben.
He could still be alive or perhaps he was already dead.
If Ben was still alive, she would be dead the moment she stepped into the slum and even if he was dead, nothing much would change.
Because there were lots of people in the slum who would take his place.
Any one of them could take Ben’s place and the moment she returned, she would be taken straight to Baron Barrodon’s estate.
‘That’s why I cannot be chased out.’
She had nowhere else to go now.
The Duke of Winfried might have told her she could stay but she could not be certain.
How much could she trust a promise sworn with only words?
How could she be sure that he would not change his mind?
Come to think of it, her parents must have assured her that they would return before they left for the battlefield.
But her parents never returned and she was left all alone.
That only made her believe empty promises made by only words even less.
‘In any case, I have no idea why the duke helped me.’
After chatting with Leo, she learned that her parents had once fought with the knights of the House of Winfried and that they were greatly indebted to her parents.
However, was that enough of a reason to search for her and take care of her like this?
Irina clenched her fists.
“I want to work.”
She looked up at Winfried.
And asked him earnestly.
‘Let me work for you.”
Staring at Irina, the Duke of Winfried narrowed his gaze.
As though he was pondering, the duke went silent for a moment before nodding.
“Alright, I’ll give you some work to do.”
“But not as a maid.”
Taken aback, Irina’s gaze wavered.
“I’m really good at cleaning…”
“Really? That’s too bad.
But I already have everyone I need to take care of the mansion.
If you want to work as a maid, I’ll need to cut someone off.”
She could not bring herself to take away someone else’s income.
Irina lowered her head sullenly but quickly raised it again.
“I can do all sorts of other work well.”
She answered courageously.
“Even though I might look unseemly, I’m good at lots of things other than cleaning.
I can wash dishes well and I can also wipe the grill spick and span after it has been used.”
Not only that, she could also change the sheets and do laundry.
Didn’t she always wash her laundry in the stream behind the slums even when it was freezing?
“Now that you cannot be a cleaning maid, are you going after a kitchen maid’s job now?”
Rogan flashed a soft smile as he looked at Irna.
“Unfortunately, I’ll have you do something else.”
Rogan reached his hand out.
The moment Irina placed her hands atop the rough ones covered in calluses, a tight grip wrapped around them as she was helped up from her seat.
“You will start work in a few days.”
He stared at Irina with a faint smile.
“But for today, I’ll show you around the estate.
You shouldn’t get lost and wander around the estate when you are working.”
It seemed like he really was going to grant her a job!
With her eyes sparkling, Irina nodded.
The smile spreading on Winfried’s face got a little wider.
“By the way, duke?”
Being naturally escorted out of the drawing room, Irina asked warily.
“What work will I be doing?”
With a smile lingering on his lips, the duke answered.
“That’s a secret.”
(1): They look something like this: https://www.darksword-armory.com/medieval-weapon/medieval-daggers/stiletto-1805/
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