* * *
The dark dawn.
Candlelight that looked like it could go out at any moment illuminated the disheveled table. Aiden sat slumped in a high-backed chair and raised a skinny hand to cover his tired face. His handsome face, half-submerged in the light, was dark with long thought.
The empty seat across from him smelled of the person who had been in the room only minutes before. Fresh, sour, and sweet, the smell of flesh on the verge of blossoming. The lingering scent of the woman, if he closed his eyes, made him feel like he was still in the room with him. Even though Belviana had stormed out after thirty minutes.
Aiden remembered her delicate features, the way she’d looked at him. He would be lying if he said he didn’t feel sorry for her, but how could he dare to harbor such luxurious feelings when their relationship had been twisted by his own hand, then and now.
Her rejection could not have pleased him in any way. But what other choice did he have? The years he had endured in misery at the limitations of his status had been painful; the patience he had endured only for her to be taken from him by a mere cobbler had not been worth it, nor had it been worth it to watch her walk into the pit of misery. His stomach twisted of their own accord. At least Belviana hadn’t walked in on him to hand over her entire noble life to that bastard. Especially not for a fantasy that would last no more than a few weeks.
Despite her protests, despite her disgusted looks, despite her words, Belviana lusted after Aiden. It was he who used it to feed his cruel appetite, but it was in her nature to be drawn to boundaries and the forbidden.
Their childhood was marked by a strange obsession and twisted affection for each other. Perhaps their relationship was a kind of longing for what she wasn’t allowed to have, because the best thing she’d ever had was Aiden, until he’d kept his distance.
As much as she’d hate to admit it, her unrequited love for Liam had been nothing more than a curiosity. Just as she had been when she was a young, an unruly girl, when she’d insisted on marrying him. But now she was no longer nine years old, and her every gesture was the talk of the town. He could not allow her to run off with a mere commoner, a flawed man, when the mere mention of his lesser station in life would undermine her position.
It would be better if she stayed away from Liam on the sentimental grounds of being a defiled woman. He thought of Belviana’s docile white face, and sometimes, when the image of a young girl came to him, a storm of uncontrollable emotion would sweep over him. Aiden raised his fingertips and pressed them firmly against his tired brow. The girl’s face vanished like an afterimage, and the world went black.
And the moment he faced the black bottom. He heard a selfish voice. Maybe all the reasons he’d given earlier were just excuses. Maybe he was just,
Rather than be forgotten,
He’d rather be hated.
* * *
Three weeks before the wedding, as was customary, the Duke of Heidelberg sent her a white beast’s pelt, elegant and massive, five paces longer than her shoulders down to her feet. The Countess of Lester was delighted with the rare gift and ordered a hunting festival to be held in his honor. It was a classic and cruel tradition to kill a white doe and send its antlers as a gift.
And so, on the third day.
The knights gathered at the hunting grounds south of Lester.
Belviana sat with the other ladies at a long table under a canopy, blessing the men nonchalantly. The ladies gracefully weighed which beast’s hide the men who had pledged their loyalty to them would offer. A vase on the table, a colorful rose in it. That was the end of their role. With each shot, red and white banners were hoisted over the vast hunting grounds, and knightly servants flew the beasts they had slain. Blood was everywhere.
She was growing tired of watching, fanning myself in the hot summer sun. For some reason, she hadn’t felt well since last night. Just as she was about to use that as an excuse to return to the mansion, she came to a stop at her feet and found a rock that crashed into them. It was tied to a small note that had flown in from somewhere. She looked around, and when no one else was looking, she opened it. It was very short.
Belle. Only thirty-five yards away.
Her cheeks flushed with tension and excitement. It was unmistakably Liam’s handwriting. The crude handwriting and slight misspellings were just as she remembered. Belviana calmly rolled up the hem of her skirt and stood up. She glanced cautiously around and took a few steps toward the woods.
“Where are you going?”
The knight standing guard around the table came straight to her. Belviana quickly clutched the note tightly in her hand and smiled, trying to keep the words out of her voice. She didn’t even bother to disguise her fatigue: the nape of her neck was pale and her cheeks were excessively flushed.
“I’m not feeling well, it’s been a hot day and I’m tired.”
“That……. Please wait a moment. I’ll call for someone to escort you to the mansion.”
“That’s fine. I’ll walk around the area a bit by myself.”
“In that case, I’ll escort you, I can’t let you go alone.”
“I really don’t mind. I’m just frustrated by the blood, so I think I’ll be fine if I get some air by myself.”
There was a brief scuffle between the two, but the knight in the service of House Lester could not defeat her spirit. The knight stepped back as if in near-compliance, but his gaze followed her like a watchful eye.
“Do not go far. The grounds are unmaintained, and you might encounter a wild beast.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
She walked slowly into the woods, and when she realized that the dense foliage prevented the knight from seeing her, she broke into a run, clutching her dress with both hands. After thirty paces, she came to a small clearing and a large zelkova tree. Belviana called out to the man in a voice as low as she could muster.
“Liam, is that really you?”
“Belle. Over here.”
Liam stepped out from behind the zelkova and waved. It had been a long time since she’d heard him, but there was no way she’d forgotten his voice. Her jaw trembled.
“Oh, my God……. It’s really you…….”
Belviana leapt at him in a whimper. It wasn’t hard for Liam to open his arms and pull her into a hug. She buried her forehead in the nape of his neck and pressed onto him. The discomfort was momentary. Liam’s body scent, which usually smelled of warm wood, was mingled with a strange cologne. Belviana lifted her head and stared at him.
“What, what happened? I didn’t realize you were back in Dietrich…….”