After Leonel left, the door opened almost ten days later.
I stood up, thinking he had returned, but the person who entered the room was the captain of the guard.
“Her Majesty orders you to attend the trial.”
Wasn’t I supposed to be here only until the investigation was over? Without my knowledge, the investigation had concluded, and the trial was underway.
I stood there silently, and the captain of the guard came closer and tied my wrists with a rope. He extended the remaining length of the rope and took the first step.
Naturally, I looked around as I entered the chamber.
‘Maybe Leonel is here.’
But he was nowhere to be seen. It was the same even after entering the courtroom.
People were tightly packed next to the steps leading to the throne, but Leonel was absent.
Adelhardt smiled, avoiding people’s gaze and just lightly waving his hand. He appeared no different from usual, but my heart didn’t ease without Leonel around.
Facing the throne, I found it hard to breathe.
As time passed, the Queen revealed herself. She sat on the throne and looked down at me. Even without anyone kneeling, my knees touched the ground on their own.
“Nelly Pepper. You’re well aware of the gravity of the crimes you’ve committed, insulting the royal family and embezzling property.”
I responded with a trembling voice.
“I am innocent.”
“When standing in this position, everyone says the same.”
At a nod from the Queen, attendants brought two women and one man forward. They stood beside me, where the Queen could see their faces, and she asked.
“Nelly Pepper, do you know them?”
“No, I’m meeting them for the first time.”
“Is this the first time you’ve seen Nelly Pepper either?”
The two women were a ghostwriter and the owner of an abandoned bell tower, respectively, and the man was a teller at the public treasury.
Despite it being our first meeting, they all testified that they had seen me.
“She asked me to ghostwrite for her, but it was a threatening letter, saying she had a maid, ‘Mary,’ and it was addressed to her.”
“She said she would pay me if I let her use the abandoned bell tower, but not to go anywhere near it for a few days.”
“She left the money in the public treasury in the name of someone named ‘Mary’.”
The Queen asked them about the times they had encountered me. The time in the abandoned tower and the money being deposited into the public treasury aligned with the times I had been trapped in the tower.
“Based on the accounts alone, it seems Nelly Pepper planned a kidnapping plot to cause chaos in the palace.”
“That’s not true. I had no reason to do such a thing.”
The Queen turned to Archduke Landers, who was seated nearby. He nodded briefly and directed his gaze toward the nobles gathered.
Gardner appeared among the people, standing next to me but slightly apart, bowing his head.
At the same time, a servant set two ledgers in front of me.
Archduke Landers said to the knights.
“Release Nelly Pepper from her bonds.”
As soon as the knight released me, I took the ledgers.
Upon examination, one was a ledger from a fatigue recovery business, while the other was from Gardner’s farm. The issue was that the quantities and amounts of Corbin fruits supplied, as recorded in the two ledgers, were different.
On the day it was noted that 20 boxes were supplied, Gardner’s farm ledger indicated they had harvested only 10 boxes. This was not a one-time occurrence. The numbers recorded in both ledgers for the days I kept the ledger were consistently different, sometimes by a factor of three or more.
Dealing with nobility and the rarity of the fruit itself meant the prices were high. If someone embezzled that much money, they could afford to build a mansion in the city.
“That should explain it. Was the kidnapping just a diversion to hide the embezzlement?”
Kidnapping would draw attention to that side, making it easier to embezzle the money.
Even if the culprits were apprehended, they could claim that they were hiding from a criminal and intended to flee the palace, all under the guise of needing to rescue a maid. It seemed the Queen was considering this too.
But I hadn’t done anything like that.
“These ledgers were manipulated.”
I wasn’t a genius like Lizzy, and I couldn’t remember everything I had recorded. But there was one thing I remembered for sure.
“When I was making entries in the ledger, I used to habitually check the quantities of supplies from the day before or a few days earlier. At those times, the amounts I received didn’t differ significantly from other days.”
Gardner, who was standing nearby, scoffed at my words.
“Your Majesty, upon inspecting the ledgers, it is confirmed that they belong to Nelly Pepper.”
The murmuring in the surroundings grew louder. It was clear which side people believed, my words or the objective evidence.
At the Queen’s command, the nobles fell silent.
When the surroundings became quiet, Archduke Landers, with a gentle smile, asked Gardner.
“What else did you find?”
“Lady Pepper’s behavior was suspicious. She frequently visited the business. Once, I happened to see her meddling with the ledger.”
Did I meddle with the ledger by writing in it, or by looking at it?
I felt anger welling up inside me, but I knew that admitting to tampering with the ledger would be disastrous, so I held my tongue.
“Every time, Lady Pepper seemed uncomfortable around me, as anyone in the business would know.”
It sounded like I was avoiding Gardner as if he had made advances toward me.
“That’s because Marquis Gardner kept making uncomfortable requests.”
“What requests did he make?”
“I have a romantic relationship with Leonel, and he kept bothering me for our time together.”
Gardner raised his voice in protest but then fell silent. Unfortunately, my provocation didn’t seem to faze him.
“And doesn’t it seem strange? If I had embezzled such a large sum of money at once, surely the person recording the ledger the next day would have noticed and reported to higher authorities.”
My words seemed to make sense, as the Queen nodded in agreement.
Then, Gardner countered.
“She set the amount high because she wanted to embezzle a significant sum in a short time. If she was planning to continue for a long time, she would have been more careful.”
“Even if the operation was short if discovered, I would become a wanted criminal. Why would I take such risks?”
“How can I know a criminal’s thoughts?”
As the debate continued, the surroundings grew noisier. People seemed confused about who was telling the truth, me or Gardner.
As the commotion increased, the Queen slammed her fist heavily onto the wooden armrest of her chair. The large ring on her hand made a loud thud.
The attention immediately turned towards the source of the noise.
The Queen was looking in my direction, or more precisely, at Gardner, who was standing near me.
“Did you witness it yourself?”
In a voice that seemed overwhelmed by the pressure, Gardner replied.
“Nelly Pepper tampered with the ledger, I saw it with my own eyes. Not only did she falsify the ledger, but I also saw her entering the stolen money into the public treasury.”
The Queen’s gaze turned back to me. It was intimidating, but I met her gaze without showing fear.
For a moment, I saw a subtle smile on Archduke Landers’ face.
“Have you heard, Your Majesty? He said he witnessed it.”
Archduke Landers gestured to his servant, and the servant politely held up one of the ledgers.
“This is quite strange. Lady Pepper has never manipulated the ledger, and how could Marquis Gardner have witnessed an event that didn’t happen?”
The Queen listened to Archduke Landers’s words, examined the ledger, and then handed it back to the servant.
The servant brought it to Gardner.
As Gardner read the contents, his face turned pale. His entire body stiffened to the point where one could believe he had died on the spot.
‘Why is he acting like this all of a sudden?’
I stared at Archduke Landers, utterly clueless. He looked at me with a reassuring expression, nodding as if to say I should not worry.
Then, he turned to the Queen and began to explain.
“In truth, before Duke Leonel left for his estate, he had a request for me.”
“What was the request?”
“He asked me to transfer all the records of the estate, fearing that someone might intentionally frame Lady Nelly Pepper.”
At that moment, I recalled Leonel muttering something about being surrounded by rumors.
‘Rumors and the fatigue recovery potion business…’
He put the two together and thought about it. Maybe that’s when he realized Gardner’s plan.
Now that I thought about it, when I went to the business with Adelhardt, Archduke Landers’ servant had been responsible for the ledgers.
It made sense. It must have been inconvenient for them to keep transferring and copying the ledgers every time I went to the business to write in them.
‘Leonel must have tipped off Archduke Landers!’
My heart lightened on its own, and I couldn’t help but smile brightly. However, Gardner’s displeased voice cut through.
“I don’t understand what happened with the ledger. But even among the common people, many claim to have seen Nelly Pepper carrying embezzled money to the public treasury at the time she disappeared.”
“I was locked in the tower at that time!”
“Is there anyone to prove that?”
I looked at Adelhardt. He maintained a mysterious smile and remained silent.
“Prince Adelhardt came to rescue me.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
Fortunately, Adelhardt confirmed my statement. But Gardner, without any sign of impatience, asked Adelhardt.
“So, did you witness Nelly Pepper being locked in the tower yourself?”
“Contrary to Prince Adelhardt’s testimony, there are people who claim to have seen Nelly Pepper entering the abandoned tower alone.”
Someone who entered the tower alone, someone like me. Suddenly, one person came to mind.
“That’s not me.”
I said, meeting Gardner’s gaze.
“The person who entered the tower alone was my mother, Viscountess Morgane.”
The fact that escaped my lips shocked the surroundings, and there were quite loud voices.
“Your mother? That must be a lie. You look nothing like her.”
“No, not at all. If you look closely, we share some resemblance.”
“But didn’t Viscountess Morgane leave the capital a few days ago?”
Amid the rising clamor, Gardner remained silent. However, his unease was evident as his gaze turned towards Devondus, who was standing among the people.
Devondus approached Adelhardt and whispered into his ear. In response, Adelhardt nodded.
‘What did I just witness? Adelhardt whispered to Devondus, right? When did they become so close?’
I stared blankly at the two of them, and Devondus gave me a sly smile.