“To be frank, I haven’t quite figured out which member of the Linden family orchestrated this, but… since a husband and wife are one in the eyes of the law, I called you both here together.”
“Wha-, I don’t understand what you’re…”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Viscount.”
Benjamin’s laugh was hollow, devoid of any warmth.
“Clipping the ransom note from newspapers was a clever touch. You figured too many people would recognize your handwriting, didn’t you?”
Though Benjamin’s accusation had loopholes, he smoothly continued.
“Moreover, the Linden manor is currently surrounded by knights from the Felton duchy. Yet there’s no sign of an intruder, and My Lady disappeared without a trace from inside the house. It points to an inside job.”
It wouldn’t make sense for the royal family or the church to target My Lady’s life, would it?
Benjamin maintained a polite smile, but the atmosphere had become icy.
“Who would suspect a thing if it was the Linden family’s carriage moving about? Ask around if anyone saw anything suspicious, and they’ll all say no.”
The culprit was someone from within the Linden household.
Benjamin swallowed his words and fixed his gaze on the Viscount, who had turned even paler than when he’d announced the kidnapping.
“Shall I mention more evidence?”
The corners of Benjamin’s mouth no longer even pretended to turn up.
He recalled the content of the newspaper Grace had been reading.
“…Ah, there were quite a few gruesome events. But more than those, there was a kidnapping case…”
Grace’s trailing words were lost as the carriage jostled.
Benjamin knew the content of the newspaper because he had been with Grace on the train.
‘It was the case where a family member was the kidnapper.’
A bitter taste filled Benjamin’s mouth.
The Viscount’s voice trembled.
“It was me, I’m responsible.”
“Why did you do it?”
Regardless of the reason, Benjamin looked at the Viscount with an air that suggested no excuse could suffice.
“I was swindled and the estate is in deep debt. About ten million zen…”
“Some of our villagers are being held hostage; we had no choice!”
“Then you should have asked to borrow the money from me.”
Benjamin asked in a calm voice.
“Was it beneath your dignity as a Viscount and a father to ask your daughter for help?”
“Was this plan known only to you and the Viscountess?”
“No! In truth, I was the only one aware of it!”
Benjamin’s gaze narrowed as he watched him.
“So everyone knew.”
“No, no, that’s not true. Really. If there’s to be punishment, let it be mine alone.”
“Viscount Linden, you seem to be under some misunderstanding. The nature of the punishment isn’t for the offender to choose. You’re in a position to only hope for mercy.”
Benjamin tapped his fingers on the armrest of the sofa, a frown creasing his brow. Those familiar with his usual demeanor would have found this sight surprising.
‘How do I tell My Lady that her family was involved in the crime?’
After rescuing Grace, he would have to give her a rough explanation of the situation. Whether or not he punished the Viscount, she needed to know what had transpired. She might also have her own ideas about the punishment.
Though ten million zen was an amount the Felton duchy could manage, it was by no means a trivial sum.
Viscount Linden knew that once Benjamin learned the ransom for his wife was ten million zen, he would pay it, regardless of his feelings for her, as her husband and as the head of the household.
That was the nature of Benjamin Felton.
Benjamin recalled the words written on the ransom note.
Prepare ten million zen. Come alone, without company.
‘The phrasing might be awkward due to the clippings, but the context is clear.’
The ‘alone’ referred to in ‘Come alone, without company’ was not meant for Benjamin, but for the Viscount. The plan was likely for the Viscount to take the money from Benjamin, hide it, bring an empty bag to pretend to make the exchange and bring Grace back.
Unconsciously, Benjamin clicked his tongue in disapproval. He just couldn’t bring himself to see this household in a good light, no matter how hard he tried.
‘Even though My Lady always speaks so well of her family.’
Benjamin rose from his seat.
“Do you want this document?”
To accept it would be to transact with one’s own child, a shameless act. Even with the lives of his people at stake, he knew that orchestrating a kidnapping with his own child was not the right course.
“I will discuss this matter with My Lady later.”
Leaving the Viscount and Viscountess in the drawing room, Benjamin stepped out. Gilbert stood outside with a pale face.
“Do you have something to say?”
“…No, I don’t.”
Benjamin maintained the utmost courtesy. Gilbert hung his head, unable to speak.
Though Gilbert had not agreed with the plan, he was a bystander who knew yet did not actively intervene.
‘Gloria, the My Lady’s sister, has not even shown her face.’
In this turmoil, her absence seemed more out of fear than guilt.
“Abel Burnton, tell the people of the Felton household to prepare to leave.”
Benjamin hurriedly mounted his horse and set off for where Grace was.
Grace winced as the carriage jostled her body continuously. Sweat began to run down her forehead, and a cascade of negative thoughts flooded her mind.
‘What if I actually die in this?’
The place where Grace was held was so soundproof that she could not hear any noise from outside.
Unable to grasp the sounds from outside, Grace grew increasingly engulfed in fear. In the dark, quiet space, time seemed irrelevant.
Though the space was not entirely sealed off, Grace felt the illusion of oxygen scarcity, her head spinning with panic.
Then, suddenly, a vibration sounded. Thud, thud, with an urgent resonance.
With fevered eyes, Grace peered into the dark surroundings.
From somewhere in the dark void, a sliver of light sliced through the gloom, and a voice Grace knew well called out.
Benjamin was truly panic-stricken, frantically calling out for Grace.
“My God, My Lady. What in the world… Are you alright?”
Grace had been trapped in a hidden compartment within the carriage seat.
Roselia had been cautious not to attack the moving carriage in fear of injuring Grace, following it until it stopped in front of a cabin.
After the kidnappers were knocked unconscious and subdued, a thorough search of the cabin and the carriage’s cargo area revealed no sign of Grace, leaving everyone in a state of shock.
It took even longer to search as no one had considered there might be a hollow space beneath the carriage.
With trembling hands, Benjamin untied all the ropes binding Grace.
“Were you very frightened? Are you okay? I-I will explain everything…”
A short, plump hand reached out towards the beautiful figure before her.
Her carrot-colored, wavy hair fluttered as the petite, round woman embraced the man.
Her voice was a tiny murmur, barely audible as she expressed her gratitude. Her face was heated with tears welling up in her eyes that couldn’t quite spill over.
“I-I was so scared, thank you for coming to save me.”
“…It’s only natural.”
Grace had never been anyone’s first priority in life. Deep down, she had half-expected Benjamin to give up on her, feeling that she wasn’t worth the trouble.
‘I thought I wasn’t worth it.’
Even when Benjamin looked at her with what seemed like love-stricken eyes, she couldn’t believe it. No matter how tenderly he acted, she assumed it was just his nature.
‘Because to be abandoned in the end would be too pitiful.’
Yet, Grace felt the warmth from Benjamin’s shaky hand gently stroking her back and was certain that he was not a man capable of harming his wife.
‘This man would never harm his wife.’
“…Are you able to stand?”
He asked her cautiously as if handling a delicate porcelain doll. When Grace nodded, Benjamin carefully helped her steady herself and led her out of the carriage.
“You wouldn’t like a carriage, so we’ll have to travel by horse. Is that alright with you?”
He checked on Grace’s condition with every little detail, making sure she was comfortable.
“…I’m fine. I’m not too weary.”
After being confined in the cramped space, Grace found the open air more comforting. She took a deep breath of the fresh air.
His gaze, filled with concern, remained on Grace’s face.
Grace called out to him, unable to articulate her gratitude fully. Benjamin, holding the horse’s reins, froze as he heard her call.