Behind “Green Garden Orphanage,” there was a forest.
This forest served as a playground where children could freely run and play.
Calyx was in the said forest with Maya.
His gaze fell at the entrance of the forest, and he finally pulled down the hood he had been clasping tightly.
A blush appeared on his usually pale cheeks.
His sparkling, ruby-colored eyes were directed at Rayna, who was entering the forest.
More precisely, toward the large white dog accompanying Rayna.
“This is Ellie,” Rayna told Calyx.
Ellie was a puppy with shiny white fur, sparkling eyes, and a moist black nose.
Although Ellie was too big to be called a puppy, she was indeed a dog of a young age.
Ellie was a dog the Count and Countess had bought for Rayna when Jonathan left for the naval academy.
However, it was clear what they would do with Ellie after Rayna left since they hated animals.
Thus, Rayna instructed Maya to bring Ellie to the orphanage after she left.
The children were delighted by the sudden appearance of a puppy.
Calyx was no exception.
When he spotted Ellie playing with the children, he couldn’t move his eyes away and pressed his forehead against the window.
“Do you like dogs?” Rayna asked without missing the opportunity.
As she expected, Calyx nodded vigorously, and Rayna arranged a meeting between Ellie and Calyx the next day.
Calyx called the dog’s name in a soft voice.
Ellie, wagging its tail, barked and jumped energetically.
Ellie’s greeting caused Calyx to fall, and then the puppy enthusiastically licked his face.
“Bhwahaha, it tickles!”
Calyx burst into laughter.
Rayna was momentarily mesmerized; it was the first time she had seen Calyx laugh out loud.
His eyes, which had been sinking into gloominess, lit up, and the corners of his mouth lifted widely.
Finally, Calyx’ face looked like that of a twelve-year-old child.
“You really love puppies,” Rayna remarked.
“Yes. I always wanted to have a pet, but I was told it wasn’t allowed,” Calyx said while gently scratching behind Ellie’s ear.
“My older brother hated animals.”
Absorbed in playing with Ellie, Calyx didn’t seem startled this time when he mentioned his brother, as he had yesterday.
“Don’t give affection to something that won’t live as long as humans do.”
He muttered, almost like talking to himself.
The raised corners of Calyx’ mouth slowly lowered.
Soon, he smiled again while watching Ellie pant with warm breath.
“It looks like Ellie is thirsty.”
Rayna commented, reaching out to Maya.
“Get me a water bowl. I’ll fetch water for Ellie from the stream.”
Then she tilted her head towards Maya and whispered,
“Show Calyx how skilled Ellie is.”
He would like it even more.
Maya handed the water bowl.
“Don’t go beyond the stream.”
Rayna picked up the bowl and headed to the stream. As she reached it, she squatted down.
Scooping water into the bowl, she suddenly paused.
Something sparkled in the stream.
‘What is that?’
In the middle of the stream, a platinum-colored seaweed shimmered with a subtle iridescence.
Rayna couldn’t take her eyes off the seaweed.
Although they were rare, it was said that the empire had many mysterious creatures not found in other countries.
‘Could this be one of them?’
Focused on the glittering weed, she stepped unaware on the stones that were placed like stepping stones, one by one, narrowing the distance between her and the seaweed.
Now the weed was within a hand’s reach.
Lifting her sleeve, Rayna cautiously knelt and slowly immersed her hand in the stream.
Driven by the impulse that she could touch it with just a little more stretch, Rayna continued to stretch her hand, and suddenly, her index finger touched something.
In an instant, the slippery object coiled around Rayna’s hand and wrist like a tentacle.
Startled, Rayna tried to pull back, but she was pulled forward by a strong force.
Losing her balance, her body leaned, and the water surface came closer.
Just as Rayna anticipated falling into the water, she closed her eyes tightly.
She heard a splashing sound, and someone suddenly pulled Rayna from behind.
Helplessly dragged by a hard arm wrapped around her waist, Rayna stumbled upon something and fell backward.
Her nose hit something hard.
She fumbled on the solid surface, feeling a strange warmth.
Only then did she realize that the place where she fell was not the ground but someone’s chest.
She raised her head slowly.
When Rayna confirmed the man’s face, her eyes widened.
The man whose body entangled with hers, and who fell himself as well, was Lucius.
‘Why is Lucius here?’
Rayna’s face paled.
She settled between Lucius’ legs as he rose from the floor and froze in place.
“That was an opal seaweed just now,” Lucius said in a calm tone.
“It lures people into the water with its light, so don’t reach out recklessly.”
Lucius’ gaze shifted toward the stream.
It was surprising to find opal seaweed in a place where it was believed to have completely disappeared.
Rayna managed to open her mouth, and Lucius turned his gaze back to her.
A hint of tension appeared on Lucius’ forehead because Rayna’s voice trembled greatly.
“Why are you here?”
Finally able to form a coherent sentence, Rayna continued,
“Th-this is private property. You can’t just come—”
Lucius corrected her,
“‘Here’ isn’t private property.”
Lucius gestured with his eyes toward the ground. It was then that Rayna realized she had crossed over to the other side of the stream.
The place where she originally stood was indeed part of the orphanage’s property, but the opposite side of the stream wasn’t.
‘How did Lucius know this?’
“Have you… been here before?”
Rayna asked, and instead of answering, Lucius gave her an enigmatic look.
The rustle of grass reached their ears.
Rayna swiftly turned her head to look at the other side of the stream where the sound came from, and just as Lucius was about to turn as well, she grabbed his face with both hands.
“Are you alright?”
She looked at him with wide eyes.
“You don’t look well.”
Lucius attempted to remove her hands, as if finding it difficult to tolerate her impoliteness.
“What do you mean? You’re not okay!”
Rayna raised her voice, fearing that he might hear the thumping sound of her racing heart.
Her heart had been pounding wildly since she spotted Maya approaching with Calyx on the other side of the stream.
In this situation, where Lucius could easily see Calyx with just a turn of his head, Rayna had no choice.
She had to keep holding onto the man’s face until Maya left with the child.
“You-you look sick. You seem to have a fever.”
She mumbled, not even sure what she was saying.
The sharp, golden eyes were as cold as frostbite.
Unable to endure the intensity of his gaze, Rayna’s hand moved involuntarily. She covered Lucius’ eyes.
‘Whew. It seems I’ll live for now.’
The relief lasted for a second.
When she felt his eyelashes tickling her palm, she felt like her blood was leaving her body.
Rayna had moved Lucius’ face as she pleased and even covered his eyes.
“Y-your eyes are re-really hot.”
“If-if it helps, just keep your eyes closed for a moment, even if it’s like this.”
Rayna took advantage of the situation to peek at the other side of the stream.
Thankfully, Maya and Calyx were gone.
A small sigh of relief escaped Rayna.
But then Lucius firmly grasped Rayna’s wrist.
She shut her eyes tightly.
‘I’m done for. Maybe if I plead now, he might spare me?’
But surprisingly, Lucius didn’t immediately pry off her hand after grabbing it.
He inhaled slowly and languidly.
Eventually, Lucius slowly removed Rayna’s hand from his eyes.
He stared at her as if he had never been blinded. Without saying a word, just staring, Lucius’ gaze made Rayna even more frightened.
“I apologize. My concern made me forget my manners—”
Lucius interrupted her and asked.
“What’s your name?”
Rayna bit her lip.
Instead of feeling like an invitation to introduce herself, it felt more like an interrogation.
Revealing her name might lead to Lucius sending a formal complaint to the Krollot family.
As Rayna subtly tried to move backward, he restrained her by gently pulling her wrist.
The slight movement brought their faces closer.
Rayna began to feel conscious of her body, entangled with his.
“Isn’t it unfair?”
“You seem to know who I am.”
Rayna’s eyes widened.
“It’s only fair you tell me your name as well.”
Rayna hesitated but eventually opened her mouth.
“I am Rayna Krollot of the Krollot County.”
In that brief moment, Rayna noticed something. When he heard her name, Lucius’ gaze shook slightly.
He finally let go of her wrist.
Rising first, he reached out his hand to her. Rayna took it and stood.
He called her name as if confirming it. She looked up at him cautiously.
“I look forward to seeing you again.”
He spoke in a low voice and turned away.
Rayna stared blankly at his retreating back.
“I look forward to seeing you again,” was a common greeting, but why did it feel so ominously foreboding?
‘Perhaps… Lucius saw Calyx?’