Spring was reaching its peak.
Unlike the flowers that bloomed earlier in spring which only lowered their pistils, the flowers that started to bloom later into spring sprouted radiantly.
By the time all the flowers were in bloom, many things had changed.
New people had moved into the Winfried townhouse and little by little, life was breathed into an estate.
In the meantime, Irina had studied, introduced herself to everyone now living in the estate and managed to read books though she still took a whole day to read one.
It was thanks to her diligence that the people of the Winfried estate would often catch Irina traversing the hallways with a book held close to her chest.
And, so did the Duke of Winfried.
It was a day like any other, one haunted by nightmares. And just like any other day, though it was not raining , he could still hear the pitter patter of raindrops.
Rogan Winfried could no longer bring himself to read as the sounds continued to resonate even when he pressed his hands tightly against his ears.
Should he try taking the medicine Mister Veron had prescribed to him or should he try to escape with alcohol?
After pondering over it for a while, he shook his head. Whether he took medicine or drank liquor, his nightmares would chase him down to no end.
And he would inadvertently return to that day, that moment.
Like the hundreds of nights since.
For some reason, as Winfried pressed his hands against his heavy eyelids, he found himself drawn to the window.
A few days ago, he had been advised by the physician after he finally confirmed his diagnosis of Winfried’s condition.
“You need to keep reminding yourself that you are safe, everything is alright, and nothing is threatening your life anymore.”
Mister Veron, the senior who had already served three generations of his family, had advised him sternly.
Nothing else could be seen from his wrinkled expression other than his concern for the duke.
But he did not put things lightly.
To keep reminding himself that everything was normal and peaceful so that he could feel safe.
Wasn’t there something amusing about that?
“It might be difficult but you have to overcome this. Your grace.”
“Your grace, you cannot skip your meals. And be sure to stand under the sun at least once a day. It will help with your sleep.”
Recalling Mister Veron’s expression as he spoke, Rogan pulled back the curtains that had been blocking out the sunlight.
He was planning on seeing some sun through the window. And he planned on walking outdoors when he got slightly better.
But something caught his eyes.
The head of yellow hair.
The small head of yellow hair, that had been pulled back into a single ponytail, was crossing the ill-maintained garden.
‘What’s going on with him?’
He could not sleep and now he was idly watching nothing happen.
Winfried pressed down on his eyelids harder this time.
Still, the head of yellow hair did not disappear from his sight.
If anything, the head only got busier.
The head would trudge out of the garden before disappearing through some low-lying shrubs.
His eyes were not tricking him.
The next day and the day after that, he would see that mop of golden hair tied back into a ponytail continue to traverse across the garden before disappearing.
One day, she would disappear into low-lying shrubs. Another day, she headed towards an old garden bench. And the day after that she would enter the garden pavilion.
She had piqued his interest.
At a fixed time everyday, Winfried would stand by the window and watch Irina busying herself day after day to find a place to sit in the garden.
As a result, Winfried had discovered the spots Irina preferred.
To start off, she liked the shade. As they approached early summer, the sun had become so blistering hot, she could not avoid it using those low-lying shrubs anymore.
She liked seeing flowers too.
Perhaps it was because she had never seen too many flowers before but Irina would pause in her tracks to smell some flowers if she spotted any on her way.
She would smile cheerily when the scent of roses in the early summer struck her nose.
But when she smelled even the hints of Astilbe, she would retreat and walk away instantly as though it deterred her.
She did not seem to like wiping her nose with her sleeves.
If he recalled correctly, he had laughed when he noticed.
He gradually found it more and more amusing.
It was, for some reason, enjoyable to watch Irina hard at work, searching for a decent seat for the day.
Even though he couldn’t sleep at night, even if the sound of military boots striking the ground echoed in his dreams, for some reason, his mood did not worsen once he watched Irina bustling about.
It was a pretty good start to his days.
And on this day, he managed to see Irina up close.
With a book in one hand and a basket in another, Irina was busily moving around the garden again.
He also noticed something round bulging in her skirt’s pockets.
“What is she trying to do?”
Like a small animal looking for a place to rest, she diligently searched. She sat here and there for moments at a time before getting up immediately.
Finally, Irina decided on a spot. Fortunately, Winfried had a good view of her new settlement.
She had sat under a tree as it provided refreshing shade but it had grown so large that it made it difficult to get a good view of the garden.
‘It must be getting hot these days, isn’t it?’
With every passing day, summer approached and it was so hot now that every brush of air against the skin left heat.
That seemed to be why she had abandoned all the spots she would frequent and gravitated towards a cooler spot.
What was she? It wasn’t as if she was a rabbit.
Winfried smiled softly to himself.
Irina, who wouldn’t dare to imagine that anyone was watching her, laid a large piece of cloth down and began to fish out the items she had brought atop the mat before sitting on it herself.
Out of the basket, she took a sandwich and a bottle of milk she seemed to have obtained from the kitchen.
And finally, she revealed the item she had hidden in her pockets, the one Winfried had been curious about.
It was a potato. A potato that was even bigger than Irina’s hand.
As she looked at the potato, Irina looked immensely satisfied. She looked like a squirrel that had stocked up on food for the winter.
‘I did hear that she had been frequenting the kitchen recently!’
She seemed to have gotten quite close to the chef and the kitchen maids.
He had wondered if she would ever be able to walk on her own two legs until she arrived here.
Her limbs had been so thin that it looked like she would stumble with a gust of wind.
There had been scars all over her body.
Weren’t there even red freshly-formed wounds overlapping with her old discoloured ones?
He could only scoff at the fact that her face was unscathed in the meanwhile.
It was obvious what that man from the slums had kept Leonid for.
Didn’t she even get a scratch on her palm the moment she opened her eyes in the townhouse?
That was his fault too.
Rogan let out a deep sigh as he recalled what happened when Lady Leonid arrived in the room.
Still, it was fortunate that that wound was all she received.
Rogan continued to watch Irina.
‘I never thought she would be able to get used to living here because of what happened.’
Or, at the very least, he thought she would take a very long time to adjust to life here.
But he had been wrong.
As though she was chiding him for his expectations of her, Leonid had adapted to the estate quickly.
She still never looked people in the eye, was overtly wary of people’s gazes and had startled him when she tried persuading him to take her in as a maid.
But, in the end, she managed to adapt to life here well.
She would scurry from place to place cheerfully, greet people, become great company and would even roll up her sleeves to help people with their work herself.
‘I managed to catch a glimpse of her in the kitchen once.’
“You should wipe it like this! That way you can clean the grill quicker!”
“Oh my god, it’s so clean.”
Didn’t her eyes sparkle when she shared a trick that only she knew?
There was even a moment he caught her leaving a maid’s quarters.
When he asked her what she was doing, she averted her gaze.
“I was telling them about a stream that would be good for doing laundry in. And then I helped them out but only for a little bit…”
And that was what she replied.
She would even demand for attention to be drawn to her with that big smile of hers.
Was it because of it?
The estate began to liven up.
People were beginning to laugh.
The knights would even smile and wave at her in the middle of their arduous training.
He would hear Irina’s name being called from here and there.
Just as he did now.
Rogan continued to watch Irina with a smile.
After fishing out everything she had brought, Irina made herself comfortable under the tree and began reading in earnest.
Judging by the cover of the book, she seemed to have gotten the book from his study.
The only place in the estate where one could obtain books from was his own study.
‘I don’t think there are that many books to read though?’
It was a study that had long been used by the heads of the Winfried Duchy.
The last time the study was used was back when his grandfather was duke.
That meant there shouldn’t be any books for Lady Leonid to read.
From what he recalled, the books in the study were mainly for practical uses.
Like books on economy, the law and tips on how to govern a territory,
There were some books on philosophy or liberal arts like painting, fine art and music but there weren’t many.
‘What book is she reading?’
Rogan leaned against the wall and inspected Irina seriously.
In an instant, her expression hardened. Her hands as she flipped the pages were gentle.
She would sometimes scribble something on a piece of paper she brought if there was a word she did not recognise but she never forgot to nibble on her sandwich at intervals.
She had brought the milk for the potatoes and she would, at times, reach her hand out for those two items.
And when she was thirsty, she would steal a glance at how much milk she had left before taking a sip and placing it down.
When the shade casted by the tree shifted, she would shield her forehead with her hands before slowly moving towards the shade again.
Irina read books slowly.
By the time she was almost done with the book, the sun was close to setting.
As though she had finally finished reading the book, Irina closed it shut and placed the last piece of sandwich into her mouth.
Then, with her back against the tree, she finally began to drink her milk with the huge potato as she enjoyed the cool evening breeze,
She was just eating a potato.
But it entertained him to no end.
Winfried continued to watch as Irina eventually left after downing her large potato and milk.
He realised that it would not be a bad idea to have another study in the estate.