Stepping out of the carriage, Grace could see the duke’s knights clad in plain clothes subtly stationed around the area. As a precaution, she’d even chosen a carriage without the family crest.
‘Do they really need to go to such lengths…?’
Despite feeling it was a bit much, Grace accepted this level of protection. Because it stemmed from the last words the orphanage director had uttered during the fire incident.
‘And why did he say it was revenge aimed at me?’
Grace had never met the director of the orphanage. It was fortunate that she had left on an expedition right after. If she had continued her reclusive silence after the incident, it would have likely fueled negative public opinion about her.
‘But my involvement in the western expedition probably shifted the attention there, diluting the sentiment.’
It was possible that bad rumors were still circulating somewhere unknown to her, but that was something she could not address at the moment.
What Grace needed to focus on was handling the things she could affect, the immediate tasks at hand. Eventually, even the seemingly insurmountable issues in the distance would come within reach.
‘Alright, let’s start by ensuring this meeting goes well.’
With a tiny fist pump for encouragement, Grace opened the café door. A clear chime sounded as she entered.
‘The meeting spot was in the corner, the blue sofa, right?’
The café was quieter than expected, making it easy to survey the room.
“Sally, you go ahead and eat whatever you want while you wait.”
“It’s fine. If it bothers you to be too far, just take a seat one table away.”
Sireni Harpy, the head of the Siren’s Song Merchant Guild, was known not to favor additional company in her discussions.
Grace, already privy to this information, directed Sally to a distance and took a seat opposite a middle-aged woman who was sipping her tea alone.
“It’s our first meeting.”
Grace had no obligation to use honorifics with the woman across from her according to the laws of nobility. However, her polite way of addressing hinted that this was not a meeting of nobles but one with a different purpose.
Additionally, merchants often preferred meetings that recognized and respected their merchant status. Especially someone like Sireni Harpy, who had grown her merchant guild ‘Siren’s Song’ to be known widely in such a short time, always valued being treated with respect.
‘Although, that preference seems less a trait of her merchant status and more because she’s from a foreign land.’
Grace found it more comfortable to use formal language when addressing someone older than herself. She looked at the middle-aged woman’s teacup and spoke up.
“So, where might the person I’m supposed to meet be?”
“…Do you have a reason to think it’s not me?”
“Because there’s only one teacup set.”
In this world, it was customary to place an inverted empty teacup at a vacant seat to signal a pending appointment.
Therefore, the woman before Grace was presumably not waiting for anyone. However, Grace knew she hadn’t mistaken the location. There was only one blue sofa in this café.
‘And, in truth, Sireni Harpy doesn’t touch a thing before her business partner arrives.’
To avoid the awkwardness of situations like her guest arriving while she’s away to the bathroom, Sireni was known not to drink or eat beforehand. Grace couldn’t share her inside knowledge, so she dressed it up in the etiquette commonly practiced in the empire.
“Sireni Harpy wouldn’t commit the rudeness of not setting an empty cup… for a friend she invited with such warm words in her letter.”
“If that were the case, I’d be rather disappointed.”
The woman across from Grace looked at her with surprise, set down her cup, and stood up to bow respectfully.
“I apologize for testing you, madam. Allow me to offer the guild master’s sincerest apologies in her stead.”
‘Perhaps she was curious if I really was Grace.’
Grace concluded that Sireni wanted to see for herself what kind of person Grace was and whether she could discern a stand-in.
“So where is she now?”
Between Grace and the middle-aged woman, a tray was placed on the table. There was a click as a two-person teapot, cups, and a plate of cake were set down.
‘I never ordered anything though?’
The woman who brought the tray skillfully arranged the table and poured tea into Grace’s cup.
“I’ve been quite rude.”
There had never been any physical description of the ‘Siren’s Song’ guild master, Sireni Harpy, in the novel.
But upon seeing her, Grace instantly knew this woman was Sireni Harpy, the guild’s master.
The woman with deep navy hair and grey eyes. She was dressed as a café worker, but she still radiated the charisma of the guild’s master.
She smoothly took a seat that had just been vacated by another, introducing herself as she did.
“I’m Sireni Harpy. It’s been a while, Grace.”
“I thought I’d test to see if anyone was impersonating you, Grace. But I must admit, I didn’t expect you to figure out it wasn’t me like that.”
“We’ve been corresponding through letters, but it’s been such a long time since we met in person, that I couldn’t rely on appearance to identify you. Plus, you’re known for keeping your true identity under wraps, so you could’ve been in disguise. Especially since Siren’s Song is renowned for its hair dyes.”
Siren’s Song was the merchant guild that started distributing hair dye developed from the fabric dyes of Arsia. Naturally, it was an accomplishment Sireni would take great pride in, and her eyes showed a flicker of satisfaction when Grace mentioned it.
With a warm smile, Sireni cleared her throat before delving into the heart of their conversation.
“Before we get into our discussion, I must confess, that the little mischief I played on you was because of your husband.”
Grace was caught off guard by the mention of Benjamin Felton and looked at Sireni with wide, surprised eyes.
Sensing that Grace was indeed unaware, Sireni’s eyes swept across the cafe interior calmly.
“After we arranged to meet here, my merchant guild had secretly booked the cafe for the entire duration of this time slot, intending to make it exclusive to our guests.”
‘Wait a minute.’
Grace’s heart chilled as a thought of ‘Could it be…?’ began to emerge.
“But according to my aide’s investigation, there’s someone who had already booked the whole cafe for the day, allowing only authorized guests to enter.”
“Yes, that person is your husband.”
Grace turned her head around suddenly. The cafe had been relatively empty when she first arrived, but now it was bustling with people.
And rather conveniently, they were all seated in such a way that their faces were hidden from Grace’s view.
Her eyes widened in disbelief as she scanned the room. Among them, there was no sight of brown hair.
“Just a moment.”
She rose abruptly from her seat, causing a few guests to flinch subtly, no doubt picking up on her serious demeanor.
Without hesitation, Grace approached a black-haired man who sat perfectly turned away from her at a calculated distance.
Though she could only see his back, she felt the tension in him rise.
“If you don’t answer right now, I’m going to lock myself in the annex and not come out for four months.”
“I apologize, I was wrong. Please forgive me. I never intended to follow you, it was just my worry getting the better of me. I am reflecting on it.”
Of course, Grace had no such intention. But whether her statement was sincere or not was unknown to Benjamin, who promptly turned around to offer his apologies.
‘When did he dye his hair?’
It seemed that he, knowing that the perception-weakening magical device did not affect Grace, had employed some tactic.
Grace had always seen Benjamin with brown hair, and the sight of him with black hair was unexpectedly fitting, which confused her momentarily.
‘No, that’s not the point.’
As she looked down at Benjamin, who seemed repentant and was glancing around guiltily, she felt a momentary weakness, her thoughts drifting elsewhere.
She gathered her resolve and spoke sternly again.
“No matter the reason, this is unacceptable! How could you do this without telling me?”
Grace could almost see the image of droopy puppy ears hanging from Benjamin’s head.
‘How can a duke of an empire behave like this?’
It wasn’t always that Benjamin showed this kind of behavior, but in front of Grace, he invariably did, which led her to worry about his social conduct beyond their private interactions.
“You always leave without a word and end up in danger, My Lady. It’s only natural that I worry.”
She found herself at a loss for words. After all, there had been times she’d ventured out only to end up vomiting or collapsing.
“But still. This time, I took knights with me. If the place is filled with people from the Felton duchy, the person we’re meeting might feel offended.”
Such a stance screamed, ‘I don’t trust you, and I can overpower you anytime if needed.’
There were moments when such a gesture was unavoidable, but this was not one of those times. For now, Sireni was displaying goodwill towards Grace.
‘Though the inexplicable nature of that goodwill is a tad frightening.’
Moreover, if their conversation progressed well, Grace had matters she intended to request of Sireni, covertly and without Benjamin’s knowledge.