Maximilian Calypse paced around the drawing room.
She was so nervous that she did not realize she was biting her fingernails until the Duke of Croyso entered the room. Hearing his cane strike the floor with a clack, she hurriedly hid her hands behind her back.
"Have I not warned you time and again about that revolting habit of yours?"
Hearing the biting chill of her father's voice, Maxi hung her head low. The duke clicked his tongue disapprovingly.
"Do not embarrass me. You have been fortunate beyond what you deserve. Should your repulsive behavior besmirch our family name, I shall not forgive you."
Cold sweat trickled down her back. As she opened her mouth to form some semblance of a reply, her spine went stiff with fear.
"I-I sh-shall do as you c-command, F-Father. W-When he comes, I-I will…"
Even without raising her head, Maxi knew perfectly well what sort of expression her father was making, for he wore a grimace of disgust whenever he heard her speak. Scrambling for words, Maxi tried to remain calm.
"I-I w-will persuade h-him t-to remain in th-this m-marriage…"
The duke rapped his cane on the floor.
"Is it too much for you to talk and behave normally even for a day — no, for even an hour? What kind of man would want a stuttering wife?"
"Riftan Calypse is no longer a low-class knight! He is now one of the best swordmasters in the continent — a hero who defeated the Red Dragon, Sektor! The church will annul this marriage at a word from him!"
Panting, the duke pressed a hand to his forehead. The mere thought of divorce scandalized him.
"I shall not allow the eldest Croyso daughter to be divorced by some lowborn knight! I will not stand by while my halfwit of a daughter ruins the reputation of this house!"
Maxi bit her lips, words rising in her throat like bile. It's not my fault. Neither she nor Riftan Calypse had ever expressed a desire to be wed to each other. It was her father who had pushed the marriage through.
As if he had read her thoughts, the duke followed with a scathing remark.
"If only you were half as beautiful as Rosetta… No, if only you were normal! Then I would not have to crawl at that lowborn's feet to humor his whims!"
At the mention of her half-sister, who was as beautiful as a rose in full bloom, the handful of defiance she had mustered slipped through her fingers like dry sand. The duke took in his daughter's face, which had turned deathly pale. He carried on without mercy.
"King Reuben may wish to take Riftan Calypse as his son-in-law, but there's nothing he can do if Calypse refuses! Had you managed to win your husband's affection, you would not be facing divorce! You have no one to blame but yourself!"
"B-But… h-he left for the c-campaign the d-day after the w-wedding…"
Maxi had hardly had a chance to talk to Riftan, let alone win his affection. She was about to protest when her vision went white for a split second as her father's cane landed on her side. Gasping for breath, she curled up. The pain was so severe that she could not even scream.
"How dare you talk back to me! Just thinking of that loathsome impediment of yours infuriates me!"
She quickly nodded to avert further blows. The duke's lips twitched as if readying itself to spew forth another stream of vitriol, but a knock on the door distracted him. He spun around to face the door. The quiet voice of a maidservant came through.
"Your Grace, the Remdragon Knights have arrived."
"Show them in!"
Her face filled with terror, Maxi raised her eyes at her father. He hissed through his teeth.
"Make it clear to Calypse that the marriage will not be annulled. I warn you once again — if you bring shame upon our house, you'll pay the price!"
The duke stomped out of the room. Maxi leaned against the window, stifling her breath while waiting for the throbbing pain to subside.
Blinded by the autumn sunlight streaming in through the window, she blinked back her tears. Crying would not make anything better. It would only drag her down deeper into the abyss.
Maxi clasped her shaking hands together. She had to collect herself — divorce was equivalent to a death sentence for a noblewoman. She would not only end up the target of ridicule, but also disgrace her entire family.
It was an unimaginable dishonor, one that could only be counteracted through a duel against Riftan Calypse. But the Duke of Croyso had no sons, and none among his relatives or sworn knights stood a chance against Riftan.
Who could win a duel against a swordmaster who had felled a dragon? Tarnishing her family name seemed inevitable. The duke would never forgive her — a timely accident might kill her before the annulment was complete. She would not put such designs past her father.
I must do everything to prevent that…
But would Riftan Calypse listen to her?
She bit her lips, feeling as though she was standing at the edge of a precipitous cliff. Her marriage had been arranged solely for the convenience of the duke and his knights.
Three years prior, when news had spread across the continent that Sektor the Red Dragon had awoken from hibernation, King Elnuima Reuben III had issued an order for his vassals to participate in a campaign to subdue it.
Duke Croyso had also been bound by law to gather his forces and embark on the campaign. But he had found a way to shift his duty to Riftan Calypse by marrying off his daughter.
Maxi shuddered, recalling the thinly veiled insults whispered among the guests on her wedding day. As a low-class knight, Riftan had had no choice but to obey the duke's command and make an appearance in the wedding hall. Maxi could not imagine the resentment and humiliation he must have felt that day. He had looked as if he was suppressing something, and she had been terrified by the expression on his face.
If I were half as beautiful as Rose, could I have won his heart?
These thoughts only deepened her torment. Riftan Calypse was a stunning man. Even Rosetta, who often mocked his humble background, could not help but blush when she saw him dressed in the ceremonial attire of his order.
Riftan could have chosen any beautiful lady to court. How could he possibly find a plain-looking woman with a stutter attractive, especially now that his accomplishments had superseded his lowborn status?
Now that he's likely to marry a princess, my pleas won't be enough to change his mind.
They had spent a single night together after the wedding. The following morning, Riftan had left for the campaign without a word, and he had never once written to her in his absence. Maxi could not be sure that he even thought of her as his wife.
With her mind clouded by dark thoughts, she had just buried her face in her hands when she heard a sullen voice.
"This is a sight to behold."
Maxi looked up with a jolt to see a giant of a man glowering at her from the door. She had not heard him enter.
"A wife trembling in fear while awaiting her husband's return from mortal peril," the man said sarcastically, approaching her with slow, silent footsteps.
Dressed in silver armor and a navy-blue tunic reminiscent of a monk's robes, Riftan was far more powerfully built and intimidating than Maxi remembered. Frozen, Maxi held her breath as she watched him draw closer.
"I didn't expect a warm welcome, but did you have to tremble as if I were carrying the plague?"
His frigid tone snapped Maxi out of her trance. Realizing that she had managed to displease him within minutes of their reunion, blood drained from her face.
"I-I am relieved t-to see you u-unharmed…"
What else could she say? She did not even know how to address him.
Riftan? Too intimate. Sir Riftan? He would surely mock her. Max's voice trailed off in confusion. Unsettled by his piercing gaze, she took a step back.
She could not fathom why he was looking at her like that. His face hardened further with each step of her retreat. Finally, he yanked Maxi's arm toward him with a threatening whisper.
"At least pretend you're happy to see me!"
She froze. Their bodies were so close that she could smell the potent undertones of leather, horses, and sweat. The overwhelming maleness of the scents pushed up memories that she had hidden even from herself over the past three years.
The curious heat radiating from his muscular body. A gaze that seemed to see straight into her mind. He had looked at her with that same look in his eyes that day. Like a hound about to rip apart fresh meat…
Maxi hastily lowered her gaze. She could feel her face burning. There was no stopping the torrent of memories now that the floodgates had opened. Memories of that night washed over her, as vivid as if they had occurred just yesterday.