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    The candlelight reflected and twinkled on the water’s surface.

    It was excessive, even for someone averse to physical contact. It seemed absurd to pour boiling water on one’s hand just because it brushed against someone else’s body.

    “……”

    Erhan just stared at the bowl of ice without making a move to take it. Sighing, I approached him.

    Although I tried to appear calm, I was actually quite apprehensive about upsetting Erhan. I carefully watched his reactions. Fortunately, he didn’t show any particular response.

    Approaching him, I cautiously grasped his sleeve. Even then, Erhan continued to stare at me intently. Gently pulling his sleeve up, I made sure not to let my skin touch his as I guided his hand into the ice water.

    It must be painful.

    Rinsing under running water would have been better, but the situation was urgent. Up close, the severity of the burn was more apparent than I had thought.

    The contrast of the reddened injury against his pale skin made me feel the pain vicariously. Frowning, I carefully held his sleeve to keep it from getting wet, and ensured that my hand didn’t touch him, all while focusing on treating the burn.

    ‘Touching him would be fatal.’

    Perhaps this was the highest level of concentration I had ever mustered in my life.

    Internally, I was constantly anxious about accidentally touching Erhan, chewing the inside of my cheek nervously.

    Ideally, I wanted to leave him be.

    Why bother with such a frightening person?

    However, if not treated now, the wound might worsen significantly. Burns can be deceptively dangerous, with scars lingering for a long time.

    ‘I thought he had gotten better.’

    Was he so averse to contact that he’d pour boiling water on his own hand?

    I remembered from a brief encounter before that he couldn’t stand skin contact. Seeing him manage to attend the academy, which was crowded and where bumping into others was frequent, I had assumed he might have improved, but apparently, I was mistaken.

    “Ah.”

    Distracted by my thoughts, Erhan’s sleeve slipped down. His voluminous sleeve sank into the bowl of ice, fluttering like a white fish.

    I carefully reached out with my left hand to prevent it from getting wetter. Bending down to delicately grab the end of the sleeve, I felt a faint breath on my cheek.

    As I slightly turned my head, our eyes met.

    We were extremely close.

    Startled, I widened my eyes, and noticed Erhan’s eyes were also slightly wider.

    For a moment, I was distracted by his appearance, forgetting the situation. Erhan had a beautiful, almost luxurious face, resembling the late former duchess more. I had thought he was exceptionally pretty even as a child. Now, although his size had increased, he still had a captivating look. The problem, however, was the closeness between us.

    ‘Too… close.’

    His breath tickled the skin just below my eyes, indicating just how close he was.

    I could see my reflection in his clear eyes. Someone who avoided physical contact like him wouldn’t enjoy being this close.

    The proximity was unnerving, and I was acutely aware of every breath he took.

    “Uh…”

    Splash.

    In my attempt to create distance, I accidentally let go of the sleeve I was holding.

    The water-soaked sleeve naturally sank into the ice water. The water, teetering on the edge, spilled over the table.

    ‘I’ve messed up.’

    In my panic, I inadvertently grabbed Erhan’s wrist.

    My face turned pale in an instant.

    A normal person might understand my action was to prevent the clothes from getting wet, but Erhan hated physical contact.

    Panicking, I quickly released his hand, but it seemed I wasn’t the only one startled.

    Erhan, uncharacteristically flustered, stretched his arm out abruptly. His reaction was probably expected, given the sudden contact.

    The problem was that his hand was still in the bowl of water. Erhan’s sudden movement caused the bowl to tilt, and unfortunately, it hit a teacup and then toppled towards him.

    Seeing the ice-cold water about to pour over Erhan, I reached out to intervene. But before I could do anything, I was sharply pulled back.

    I couldn’t even make a sound.

    Startled by the strong grip, I looked up to see dark blue eyes peering down at me through fluttering paper.

    ‘Zachary pulled me back.’

    He must have grabbed me around the waist and pulled me away, anticipating that I might get drenched.

    As a result, only Erhan ended up getting wet. In a situation where I needed to make a good impression on Erhan, I ended up exacerbating the situation by trying to help.

    After the bowl tipped over, the waiting servants promptly moved to clean the table, ensuring we didn’t get further soaked. However, they couldn’t touch Erhan, so he remained wet.

    “I’m sorry. I overstepped.”

    Even though Erhan spilled it, the cause was my action. Trying to help when it was unwanted, I had become a nuisance.

    And with someone who disliked physical contact, what was I thinking? Even if I had managed to make a good impression initially, it felt like I had botched everything from the start.

    “I’m really sorry…”

    “……”

    Despite my repeated apologies, Erhan just silently looked at me.

    I wished he would just scold me. His silent gaze felt almost like a reprimand. Hesitating whether to take out my handkerchief, I eventually placed it carefully on the corner of the table.

    “If you don’t find it too bothersome, you could use this…”

    Of course, the handkerchief was far too small to dry his completely wet body. It would take a while to dab off the moisture with it.

    Maybe if I ran now and brought back a towel, he might forgive me?

    As I pondered this, Erhan, who had been silently observing me, shifted his gaze to the handkerchief I offered. In the ensuing silence, he stared at it for a moment, then looked back at me.

    “You, that handkerchief…” He started to say something but instead let out a sigh.

    “……”

    Erhan’s expression hardened as he looked at his wet clothes.

    I felt as if the temperature around us had dropped, such was the chilling and eerie aura that enveloped us. I found myself frozen, unable to even exhale. My eyes involuntarily followed Erhan’s gaze.

    His shirt, soaked from the unexpected dousing, clung to him from his chest down to his abdomen. But that wasn’t the only issue.

    What caused my alarm wasn’t just the sight of Erhan’s physique. It was the sight of something red through his semi-transparent, wet white shirt. Intricate markings, possibly runes, were densely covering his skin.

    ‘Runes…?’

    And there were many of them, varied in shapes and packed together.

    “Did you notice?”

    Startled by Erhan’s cool voice, I looked up. He was looking down at me.

    Seeing my expression, he remarked, “Well, you’ve seen it now,” and casually took off his shirt. Water dripped from the damp fabric, and his hair became even more disheveled.

    I slowly opened my mouth.

    Only his lower chest and abdomen had been wet, so I hadn’t seen his entire upper body until now. With his shirt off, his upper body was fully exposed. He had a well-built physique, impressive for his age, with both large and small muscles. But there was something even more striking.

    Erhan’s upper body was covered in vivid red runes.

    The sheer number of runes was so overwhelming that I momentarily doubted my eyes.

    What shocked me more was that even someone as ignorant about magic as myself could recognize the largest rune.

    ‘It’s a sensory deprivation rune, isn’t it?’

    I remembered this particular rune pattern because it seemed almost alive.

    At the center of this rune, there is a small, gem-shaped, elongated eye, barely noticeable unless looked at closely. This eye opens when the caster wants to deactivate the senses and appears closed, like it’s sleeping, when not in use.

    Isn’t it chilling? A rune that seems to have a life of its own… When I first learned about it, I understood why the Holy Empire shunned such magic.

    ‘To have so many of them etched onto the body?’

    Of course, there were other runes besides the sensory deprivation ones, but those were overwhelmingly numerous. Moreover, some, especially on the front, seemed to have been added recently, unlike the older ones on the back.

    When runes are etched onto the body, they thrash within the skin like monster blood, resisting until they perfectly interlock. This agitation stabilizes over time. Hence, older runes are calmer, appearing in a dark red hue, while the newer ones, still fresh and active, pulsate vividly red.

    The sight of Erhan’s body, adorned with these pulsating, living runes, was both mesmerizing and unsettling.

    ‘His front is a complete mess.’

    Several runes from his chest down to his abdomen were vividly red. The fact that these runes had their ‘eyes’ open, despite being freshly etched, indicated they were already functioning stably. Realizing why Erhan had been wearing that artificial fruity perfume made me sigh. He must have used it to mask the sharp, unpleasant smell of blood associated with getting new runes.

    The runes covering his body revealed more than just this. The reason Erhan could withstand the crowded academy environment was now clear to me…

    “I can’t feel anything that I can’t sense. It’s more comfortable that way.”

    It was because of the sensory deprivation runes. With so many of them etched into his skin, he could endure things like the burn on his hand, which would have made an ordinary person scream in pain. The runes numbed his sense of touch, enabling him to tolerate physical contact and crowded places without discomfort.

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