There are two ways to make people really curious, and the first is to start saying something and then stop.
Grace tantalized the maids with hints of a story, igniting their curiosity but leaving them too respectful of her status to press for more. The maids’ eyes were alight with a desire to know, despite being unable to question their superior.
“Madam, what happened during the western expedition?”
“Did someone dare to trouble you?”
“Heaven forbid! Our lady is now a duchess!”
It seemed the maids had forgotten how they had slyly mocked her just moments ago as they now rushed to her defense.
They weren’t really protecting Grace. It’s just they saw an opportunity to hear tales of another world, stories they’d normally never have the chance to overhear.
“…It’s something that others shouldn’t know.”
“We won’t tell a soul.”
Grace hesitated for effect, then began to speak.
“You see, before coming back from the expedition, I had sent word ahead that I would visit the Linden viscounty, right? So, I had secretly prepared a few gifts…”
In truth, she hadn’t prepared any such gifts. The only thing presented during the estate visit was what Benjamin had handed to the viscount.
“But you know, there was a small mishap during the expedition, some confusion or maybe it was my mistake, but they decided to inspect my belongings. Ah, but it was cleared up! It was a misunderstanding, really!”
It was a story from the Count Ardel’s estate. Grace subtly twisted the tale of the false theft accusation, where a priest had perjured himself to pin the crime on her.
“But, they handled my things so roughly that a few items were damaged…”
Grace murmured with a tone of genuine regret.
“Did you protest properly, Madam?”
“Would our lady do that? She’s always been so tender-hearted. It’s always been that way.”
The maids expressed their frustration, and Grace decided to sprinkle in a bit more information.
“What can I do? If anything went wrong, His Excellency might have had a fallout with the temple.”
“….!”, The maids gasped in surprise.
Pretending to be oblivious, Grace let all the information slip as if by accident and covered her mouth as if she had said too much.
Even if the incident in the west was resolved according to the temple’s internal regulations, it was uncertain if the ducal house would receive proper compensation.
Benjamin had said he would look into it, but Grace could not be sure how it would be settled.
In the worst case, it could be buried. Or, since the decision was delayed, the temple might be trying to cover it up already.
‘Do they think I’ll just stand by?’
They had tried to frame her, an innocent. Grace decided to spread the word about the incident, as a way to refresh her image.
‘After all, it’s their mistake. What can be protesting do now?’
Grace glanced at the maids. Their expressions had changed since before they’d heard her story and they no longer looked at her with blatant disregard.
There was a hint of sympathy among them, and Grace realized even that sympathy could be advantageous now.
“So, I was thinking about what to give everyone, and I decided, maybe I’ll share some of my jewelry with you. How does that sound?”
The maids inhaled softly at Grace’s offer. Even the smallest piece from the duchess’s collection would be considered quite valuable.
“But in exchange, what we talked about today stays a secret. Understood?”
Secrets were meant to be spread, after all.
“Then let us help you dress.”
“…I can manage the dress on my own, but could you help with the rest? I would like the perfume over there, the pink one, please.”
Grace chose a perfume with a light rose scent and headed toward the partition.
‘Now that I’ve offered a bribe, no, a gift, the story should spread in my favor.’
Abel, standing silently beside Benjamin, stole a glance at his lord.
‘She’s taking quite a while.’
Grace Felton, his lord’s wife and the lady of the ducal house, had been gone an unusually long time just to change her clothes.
Noblewomen’s attire typically took quite a while to put on. Grace’s preferences for less ornate garments meant her dressing time was shorter than most, but it was still lengthy compared to men’s attire.
‘It’s well past the normal time for a noblewoman to get ready.’
Benjamin, having waited so long had read through the newspaper and still had time to spare, was now looking at the manor house’s doors with his hands clasped behind his back.
As the reservation time for dinner approached, Abel was about to suggest postponing when the manor’s door suddenly burst open with a loud bang.
“M-Master, hold fast!”
“Butler! Hurry, gather people! Quickly!”
“Your Excellency, shall I see what the matter is…?”
“I’ll go myself.”
Benjamin, brushing off Abel, approached first. The viscount was gasping for breath, and upon seeing Benjamin, clutched at his clothes.
“My daughter… Grace has been kidnapped!”
The ever-gentle smile faded from Benjamin’s face, replaced by a look of hardened disbelief.
“Are you saying that My Lady has been kidnapped from the manor?”
His expression was that of a man confronted with an unbelievable catastrophe. But after a brief moment, he inhaled deeply, as if concluding a thought.
Regaining his composure with an almost ordinary expression, those around him felt a chill at the swift return to calm.
Ignoring the reaction of others, Benjamin questioned the Viscount.
“There must be a valid reason you say she was kidnapped. Was there a ransom note?”
At Benjamin’s query, the viscount nodded, showing him a crumpled card he had been clutching tightly.
Abel, standing beside him, noticed something unusual about the card.
“The letters are all cut out from newspapers.”
Benjamin flipped the card over, comparing the front and back several times before nodding.
“Viscount, is it possible to seal off all entry to the viscounty?”
“T-That would be difficult.”
The viscount mumbled, looking down, which made Abel frown.
However, Benjamin, without a single furrow in his brow, simply nodded.
“And why is that?”
“Right now, it’s the busiest time for outside merchants in the viscounty. Provoking the kidnapper could be dangerous, and without announcing the kidnapping, sealing off the viscounty without any reason would diminish the trust in Linden.”
“…That makes sense.”
Linden viscounty didn’t have outstanding revenue sources.
“Also, the kidnapper has demanded a ransom of ten million. Regrettably, Linden viscounty doesn’t have the means to produce such an amount immediately, so we cannot afford to lose the merchants’ trust as we may need to propose an alternative deal to the kidnapper.”
Ten million zen was equivalent to the viscounty’s annual budget. Even that was a generous estimate, illustrating just how impoverished the Linden territory was.
Benjamin fell into thought upon hearing the viscount’s words, then made a suggestion.
“Then the Felton ducal house shall cover the ten million zen ransom.”
Abel, who was listening nearby, began to consider how they could quickly procure such a sum.
“But in return, we would require a favor from you.”
However, Abel sometimes felt uneasy assisting Benjamin.
His lord often had a genial face, yet his actions were unpredictably mysterious at times.
“Could we perhaps borrow the uniforms of the city gate guards?”
‘Where am I?’
It was cramped, dark, and uncomfortable.
‘I was just at the manor before going to dinner with Benjamin…’
After that, her memory was blank.
Grace tried to move but found herself bound; her eyes and mouth were also covered.
Being suddenly kidnapped was such a cruel twist in her life.
There was no pain in her body. They hadn’t knocked her out with a blow to the head, it seemed more like she had been drugged, leaving her head foggy.
Grace struggled to stay calm and suppress her fear, trying to think through her situation.
‘Is the Baron Remante behind this?’
He was the only one that came to mind in her current predicament.
Grace had subtly shown the maids a new jewel she had supposedly found in the mines, promising to share some of her now unused jewelry with them.
‘And after that…’
Grace had changed her clothes and was making her way to meet Benjamin, who was waiting for her. Coaxing the maids had taken some time, and not wanting to keep him waiting any longer, she had left them to finish up and set out on her own.
Having grown up in the Linden manor, Grace knew the layout like the back of her hand, confident she wouldn’t lose her way even when alone.
‘Did I suddenly lose consciousness then?’
Grace furrowed her brow in frustration. It meant that a kidnapper had infiltrated the manor.