It was evening, but I didn’t feel like I could swallow any food.
Adelhardt sent a servant when I didn’t show up at the dining room. I reluctantly followed but couldn’t eat anything and just passed the time.
When I entered the room, I felt different from when I left.
Goosebumps ran through my whole body as I looked around the room. As always, there were only traces of the servant cleaning.
When I asked the knights at the door, they said that there were no outsiders, only knights and servants. This meant that among them, there must be someone related to Gardner.
‘Should I have gone to find Gardner as soon as I found out that Mary was gone?’
I nodded without much hesitation. When I came out, the investigation into the intruder was already underway. If Gardner had managed to escape that investigation, it meant that he had abducted Mary before.
There would be no benefit to making a fuss without evidence. Instead, he would have been imprisoned for causing a disturbance in the palace or maybe even harmed Mary, assuming he had a grudge against her.
‘I have to inform Adelhardt of the meeting place with the captor. I wish I could say it in person…’
There was no choice but to go. It was a chance to locate Mary. Although it was uncertain whether the captor would release her, lives were at stake, so caution was necessary.
I felt my arms trembling, so I hugged them.
‘If I leave first and Adelhardt follows, maybe both Mary and I can survive.’
Let’s wait for Adelhardt to arrive and speak when there is an opportunity. It may fail, so we should have a backup plan.
I got up from my seat and wrote down the contents of the letter sent by the captor as I remembered them. Then, I folded it small and hid it in my sleeve. The rough paper gave me a tingling sensation on my skin.
‘I must hide it in a place where Adelhardt can come and go without being suspected.’
I tried not to pay too much attention and opened the door.
“Where are you going?”
A knight asked. A cold sweat ran down my spine as I realized he might be one of Gardner’s people.
“I’m a bit troubled, so I wanted to take a look at the portraits!”
“Well, it’s just a bunch of faces, aren’t they scary?”
“I saw it when I was hiding, and it put me at ease.”
The knight looked at me strangely, but I paid no attention and entered the portrait room. I hid a note behind a painting on the secret passage.
I returned to the room and sat on the sofa. Thinking that I had to leave in a few hours, my head was foggy, and my hands were trembling. I clenched my hands and tried to compose myself when Adelhardt arrived.
He seemed concerned about my unusual state and asked.
“What’s wrong, Nelly?”
I looked up to talk about the letter, and for a moment, Adelhardt’s gaze and mine met. There were also knights nearby. It seemed like Adelhardt had come to protect me.
He had eyes and ears everywhere, he had said. I forced a smile.
Adelhardt looked puzzled, but he quickly followed the conversation smoothly.
“No news is good news. He must have arrived safely.”
“I was going to ask him to pass on my regards to Guadang, but I forgot.”
Adelhardt asked, pretending not to know. He must have known that Guadang was a donkey because I rode on it.
I looked down at my fingertips, trying to prevent my gaze from wandering to the knights or servants.
“It’s my donkey. It’s incredibly cute.”
“You were going to ask the Duke to convey regards to a donkey?”
He burst into laughter. His behavior was almost unchanged, which was a bit confusing.
Was he pretending not to know about Guadang because he was keeping an eye on the surroundings? If he genuinely forgot, he might not recognize my signal.
“Yes, ‘Leonel’ and ‘Guadang’ have a subtle ‘relationship.’ I even let him ride on the ‘back.’”
Did you understand? You should have understood.
I couldn’t overtly show my anxiety, so I fidgeted with my fingers and then spoke.
“I’ll be going out early tomorrow.”
“Isn’t the palace safe?”
“I have things to do.”
“Shall I come with you?”
“No, it’s okay.”
“…If you’re going out early tomorrow, I should probably take it easy today. I need to be discreet, right?”
Adelhardt got up from his seat, winking playfully.
I felt like I might inadvertently burst into laughter, so I bit my lip and nodded.
As he left, I was alone, but I felt reassured.
Be brave, Nelly Pepper! Go and rescue Mary and come back safely.
When Leonel arrives, I’ll tell him everything Gardner did. I’ll hug him and complain about being scared, and I’ll seek comfort.
Just the thought of being together with him eased some of my fears.
I sat on the sofa, passing the time until dawn.
When Adelhardt arrives, I’ll have to endure it, so I should bring a weapon with me. I picked up a dagger, and just in case, I grabbed another one. I tied one to my thigh and the other to my waist, thinking I should be prepared for anything.
I rummaged through the dressing table and found a tiny eyebrow knife, the size of a finger, with a thin leather cover over the blade. I put the eyebrow knife inside my shoe. If I ever got tied up, I would have it ready to use.
“I’m going out for a while.”
“At this hour?”
I opened the door and left, and a tired-looking knight questioned me. He was a different person from the one who had been on watch earlier.
“If you’re tired, I’ll go alone.”
“That’s not possible.”
The knights exchanged glances and followed me. As I rode in the carriage and passed through the palace gates, three more knights joined us.
I found myself surrounded by five knights as I left. If I continued to my destination with them, I couldn’t guarantee Mary’s safety.
‘I need to shake them off.’
Going alone was still frightening, but Adelhardt would follow soon. So it’s okay.
As I neared my destination, I decided to take the most obvious, albeit embarrassing, excuse.
“I, uh, need to go to the bathroom…”
The knights were flustered and stopped the carriage.
“I’d be embarrassed if anyone followed me!”
I firmly insisted and walked alone into the area with tall grass and trees. Then, I crouched low and made my escape.
After circling for a while, I entered a dim alley behind the fatigue recovery potion factory. It wasn’t long before two men appeared in the darkness.
But Mary was nowhere in sight.
One of the men pulled out a rope. I stepped back and drew my dagger. The tip of the sword I aimed forward trembled badly.
“Think you can stab with that?”
The man with the rope laughed. The other man, standing silently beside him, also drew his sword.
Fear surged through me, but now there was no escape.
“I kept my promise. Where’s Mary? Bring her here and let her go before my eyes.”
“How would we know if you’ve told anyone about our destination? Follow us quietly; we’ll take you to your servant, whether it’s Mary or Mellie.”
“But I won’t cover my eyes and mouth. I’ll follow quietly.”
“I was told never to trust you.”
The man with the sword then struck my wrist with great force. I couldn’t even scream; his strong hand covered my mouth.
The dagger fell to the ground, making a thud, and soon my vision was covered by a thick cloth.
* * *
Leonel bit his lip.
The Duchy of Altwood wasn’t that far from the capital. If he rode without stopping, he could arrive in two days.
However, two days had passed, and he couldn’t even reach the city walls. Time was being delayed by the persistent pursuit of the assassins.
Compared to his life as an assassin, the number of attack attempts was relatively low.
He thought that it was more advantageous to conserve his energy rather than fight, so he evaded the assassins and ran.
After repeating this a few times, he found himself taking detours even on the quickest route. It felt like he was being hunted.
It was as if their goal was not to assassinate him but to delay his arrival.
From then on, he didn’t avoid them and cut off their pursuit. He switched horses halfway through and rode at full speed past the assassins, making it into the Duchy in three days.
As soon as he arrived, he looked for Devondus.
“You came faster than I thought.”
Devondus smiled despite seeing Leonel’s distorted face.
“I thought you were going to the New Year’s ball, so I thought you wouldn’t be back until February.”
As he asked how he had returned so quickly after sending the assassins, he cheekily offered another reason.
Leonel approached Devondus with a cold expression.
Among the shadowy features, only his red eyes sparkled sharply.
“Now that the master has returned, step aside, Uncle.”
No matter how tightly he clenched his arm, Devondus’ knuckles lost color.
He looked at Leonel with eyes full of hatred, then smirked and got up from his seat.
“Right. The Duke is back in good health, so I have to give it to him.”
Leonel immediately prepared a letter of authority and handed it to Levance. Then he wrote a notification letter for Devondus and handed it over.
Seeing Leonel sitting comfortably with his legs crossed, Devondus felt like his insides were turning.
“But it’s unexpected. You’re traveling in person. Aren’t you worried about your lover in the capital?”
“There’s nothing for you to worry about, Uncle.”
“Well, by now, Lord Lander’s money may have been embezzled, and she might have gotten scared and committed suicide.”
They exchanged the same bright red eyes, staring at each other.
While Leonel seethed in silent anger, Devondus grinned like a demon.
“All hypothetical, of course. I’ve only been in the Duchy, what do I know.”
Devondus rose from his seat as if someone who had completed a satisfying task.
Then, as if he had been waiting for this moment, he left the Duke’s presence. Just bringing Leonel into the territory was enough, as if he had fulfilled his duty.
Leonel stood by the window, watching Devondus’ carriage leave the castle. Levance approached him.
“I sent a letter asking her not to come down, but it seems it got mixed up.”
“Aren’t you worried about Nelly?”
“She’s not stupid enough to just come down when the intentions are clear.”
“Then, please rest for a while. You look tired.”
“No, I’ll leave in two hours.”
Although he had written the letter and come down, his anxiety didn’t dissipate. He felt he needed to check on her safety with his own eyes as soon as possible.
“I’ll prepare the carriage.”
Leonel shook his head and stood in front of the desk.
“No need. A carriage will take a long time.”
“But haven’t you already traveled all night to get here?”
“Levance. I am not the one you should be worried about. I trusted you with the estate, and this is what happened?”
Upon hearing the word “trust,” Levance showed a tearful expression. But he knew it wasn’t the time for sentimentality and bowed deeply.
“I apologize for the lack of decorum.”
Levance placed a pile of documents in front of Leonel. It was a collection of paperwork related to what had been happening during his absence.
It was even messier than what he had gathered from the letters.
“These migrants are uncontrollable. Why weren’t they dealt with more forcefully?”
“There are a lot of people caught up in this.”
If they had imposed lighter penalties on the existing residents, it would be seen as discrimination against the newcomers.
Some of the residents were the very people Leonel had personally recruited. They were individuals who had lost their families or homes due to the war, much like Faust. Leonel felt a heavy responsibility for them.
“Besides, it seems like he intentionally let only those whom the Duke might feel guilty about getting involved in this mess.”
This would imply that they had known in advance that those who committed the same crime wouldn’t face severe punishment. If they applied lenient punishments, the troublemakers among them would run rampant, and it would fuel the dissatisfaction of the existing residents. Discriminating in punishment would lead to the newcomers’ distrust.
The solution was simple. They needed to impose strict penalties on everyone to restore order.
Devondus believed that Leonel wouldn’t treat the residents harshly, even if it was just because of his guilt.
“He’s still using dirty tactics, it seems.”
Leonel sighed deeply.
Suddenly, he recalled something Nelly had said.
Before she traveled back in time, she had mentioned that the workload had become overwhelming when they started accepting migrants. Given the situation he was facing now, he could understand why.
‘It looks like even Leonel got tangled up in this mess because of guilt.’