“The neutral territory is an unusual place” explained Ivan.
“It includes everything from icecaps to sandstorms, and even,” he pointed to an area of bubbling blue water, “hot springs.”
Lia had followed Ivan through a patch of forest.
She couldn’t believe her eyes that this very small lake tucked in the forest naturally provided warm water—just perfect for bathing.
Ivan put the lantern down at a tree near the water’s edge while Lia looked around in awe.
“Isn’t it amazing”
“Yes, it is,” she replied.
“I have only read about hot springs.
There must be a volcano nearby.”
“I’m not sure about that, but there are lakes like this dotted throughout the landscape.
They provide the people of Del Casa with warm water all year around.
It’s all thanks to the previous Duke for building the infrastructure.”
“The Duke seemed like a great person.”
“Of course, and he deserved the utmost respect,” said Ivan.
“Anyway, you can wash up here comfortably.”
“No, I’m just going to wash my face.”
“Then, I’ll leave you to it and wait outside of the forest.”
She had heard that the people of the North were cold and scary.
But, she was learning that not all of them are.
Lia waited until Ivan completely disappeared among the trees before she squatted down.
The water was so clear that the stars and the moon in the sky were reflected in the lake, ready to drown in it.
She unbuttoned her top button and put her hands in the warm water, moaning with pleasure as her warming hands thawed her body.
As her mood lightened, she washed her face, removed her shoes and socks, and dipped her feet in the water.
She longed to strip completely naked and jump in, but sadly, she couldn’t.
She laughed with joy as she wiggled her toes in the inviting water.
Droplets splashed onto her knees and tickled her calves and ankles as they slid down her legs.
She was struck by the juxtaposition of the warm water, the stone, the sand, the fallen leaves—the ability to find such peace and rest in the middle of a war zone.
“Anyway, how can I return it” she asked herself out loud.
She felt uncomfortable knowing that the Duchess’s brooch was in her dresser drawer.
How could the Duke have dropped something so valuable on her bed It is obvious that a man can’t be a duchess, so Lia was not to be the owner of the brooch.
Claude’s confession of his feelings toward Canillian—a man—confused and troubled Lia even more.
Does he like men If he found out that I’m a woman, would he not like me
He could become angry if he thought Lia had deceived him on purpose.
Lia focused again on the magical sight of the moon and stars reflected in the water.
The shadow of a branch and its leaves shone like a thousand clematis.
Her heart pounded.
“Do you like it”
The voice startled her out of her reverie.
She turned around in surprise.
The Duke stood there.
Lia stood up immediately, thinking of his embrace and kisses.
All at once her foot slipped out from under her, she let out a short cry as she fought to successfully regain her balance.
He buried his face in one hand, his shoulders trembling as he tried to hold back his laughter.
“Don’t laugh! You startled me,” she admonished.
She came away from the water, glaring at him in embarrassment.
He grinned as he spoke, “You won’t catch a cold swimming here.
You can swim here as much as you like.”
He was wearing a proper shirt now.
He was definitely teasing her.
He knew full well that she can’t leisurely swim in the middle of a battlefield.
“It’s okay,” she replied.
“I just wanted to wash my face.”
Lia brushed water from her wet bangs and face with her hand.
Claude, staring at her hand as she brushed off her shirt, took a step back, and leaned against a tree.
“I’m serious,” he insisted.
“I won’t let even a single ant come here to disturb you.
So, wash up in peace.”
Canillia aimed her clear eyes at his words and spoke back jokingly.
As you know I’m quite shy, so I can’t wash up outside.”
“You were swimming just fine at the river,” he countered.
“That was at Cosoar,” she replied.
He stared at her and then suddenly came closer.
Instinctively, her legs carried her away from him, away from any kisses.
Even though he had been shot, even though he was a patient, he was here walking toward her.
How is a patient walking around so normally
Lia’s movement away from him touched the Duke’s nerve.
He raised an eyebrow, stretched out his hand and grabbed her wrist.
He slid that hand down to her palm and dug his fingers into her it.
Her small, firm lips shut tightly as she felt their body heat intertwine.
He stared into her stern green eyes and spoke.
“It’s not Cosoar here, but it’s my land.
North of Del Casa, Valencia region.
The neutral territory is going to disappear.”
He is so much taller than she! Lia had to lift her head up to the point it hurt to look him in the eye.
Claude let her hand go, grabbed her shoulder, and turned her towards the lake.
He marched her to the water’s edge and put down a basket.
“Get used to the North, Canillian.”
His low voice came near her neck.
Lia, without being able to turn around, looked at the forest, the steamy lake, and the sky brightened by a succession of jewel-like stars.
“The Prince awaits me, so I must go.
If anything happens, just scream.
I won’t let anyone by the lake while you are here, so don’t worry about being seen.”
She noticed that his fingers—those that had grabbed her shoulder, those that had put pressure on her, turned white.
He turned around to leave.
After his footsteps completely disappeared, she spotted the small basket the Duke had placed there.
Inside was a change of clothes and a clean towel.
His touch left her with a residual feeling—a tickle, a chill, a burn Was she burning up or disappearing She didn’t know.
Suddenly she tore off her clothes like she was possessed.
Gray light revealed her lean female body.
Before the cold wind enveloping her could cause goose bumps, Lia jumped into the water.
The warm temperature of the water hugged her like a mother hugs her child.
The bubbles gurgled and popped in her ears.
She was conflicted.
While she thought Claude would keep his promise that not a single ant would come to the area, she simultaneously berated herself for believing him.
She silently decided: He will definitely keep his promise.
She relaxed into the warmth and calm of the hot spring and had a peaceful thought: Man or woman.
Canillian or Canillia.
It doesn’t matter who I am.