I smiled broadly, but then I quickly put on a concerned expression when I locked eyes with Lizzy. She mumbled at the end of her sentence and nodded vigorously with a tearful expression.
“Would you like to come inside for now? I’ll take Guadang, I mean the donkey, back to the pasture and come back.”
“Okay, Ms. Nelly.”
“Enjoy a warm cup of tea.”
After patting Lizzy on the shoulder, I took Guadang and headed back to the pasture.
* * *
Leonel looked at the two invitation cards that had been handed to him. One was addressed to Nelly Pepper, but all of the prince’s messengers had delivered them to Leonel. The intention behind this action was quite clear.
Leonel had already heard about Nelly Pepper’s reputation. She was praised not only for taking good care of her domains but also for being considerate of the poor, even capturing the heart of the queen who worried about the less fortunate.
‘Someone must have their eye on Nelly Pepper.’
Nobles with domains often faced many difficulties due to their stewards. It was common for stewards to embezzle funds and then flee or live extravagantly within the domain, often comparable to the king, looting resources. In the latter case, there was at least the possibility of punishment for maintaining order, but the former was different.
Even if they were swindled, nobles couldn’t say anything to maintain their reputation and dignity. So, nobles naturally wanted honest and competent people as their stewards. But not everyone liked having someone in control over them.
‘It must be Adelhardt.’
Leonel couldn’t help but furrow his brow.
‘Does this mean he intends to poach my manager?’
If someone was given a dress as a gift, it might be possible to win them over with money. But what did he plan to do after poaching Nelly Pepper? The prince had no domains of his own, so he didn’t need a steward. Besides, he would naturally be surrounded by loyal and capable individuals.
‘But when we met in the alley, he didn’t seem to know that Nelly Pepper was the manager of the Duchy of Altwood.’
Perhaps he knew all along, and it was an act. After all, one could easily put on an act if they wanted to.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Where did my assistant go?”
“Lizzy went to the management office at my request to deliver some documents.”
“Why do you ask, Your Grace?”
“It’s just… It’s strange. How did she manage to hide such extraordinary intelligence?”
“Are you asking because you don’t know?”
Levance pointed to the wooden interior decoration, a rambler, with his finger resting on the wall. There, a pen that Lizzy had thrown away was firmly stuck.
“It seems like there was no need to hide it.”
Leonel nodded as he looked at the pen stuck in like a dart.
“But Nelly Pepper managed to find such a person.”
Levance, who was looking at documents, let out a small sigh.
“Do you still suspect Nelly?”
Leonel didn’t answer, but Levance knew the answer. He put down the pen he was holding and looked up.
“Why do you doubt Nelly so much?”
“Have I not doubted anyone?”
“You wanted to extend the contract with the ranch keeper, Frer.”
“I don’t fully trust the ranch keeper either. I just want to keep a closer eye because he does his job well.”
“Nelly does her job well too.”
Indeed, Nelly Pepper had proven to be competent so far.
“So, you’re not pushing her away.”
Levance looked at his superior closely, hiding a sigh. Leonel unintentionally furrowed his brow.
“She seems familiar with dealing with me.”
“She also treats Arette, Sophie, Tom, Gerald, and Faust kindly.”
Levance looked at Leonel with eyes that asked if that was the reason. Leonel, who had been contemplating, added his words.
“Her laughter seems to be unsettling.”
Levance’s eyes held a hint of pity as he observed Leonel. Realizing that his steward had caught onto his unease, Leonel nonchalantly brushed his left eyebrow with his leg crossed.
“It’s strange. You’ve grown so comfortable with Nelly Pepper that you even call her by her first name. Is that why you’ve started to resemble her unfriendly gaze?”
Levance began to apologize but then tilted his head. He had suddenly remembered something.
Come to think of it, Nelly has been calling him by his first name as well. As Leonel had said, it was strangely familiar.
Levance shook off the strange sensation and returned to the conversation.
“May I speak frankly, Your Grace?”
“In my opinion, it seems like you already know that Nelly Pepper is not a suspicious person.”
“Yes. You have started calling her Nelly rather than addressing her as the estate manager, haven’t you?”
Leonel appeared uneasy, but Levance continued without stopping.
“I believe that you may unconsciously trust Nelly, despite your attempts to convince yourself otherwise.”
“Unconscious trust, you say?”
“Yes. It’s as if you’re trying hard not to trust her because of the pain of past betrayals.”
Leonel replied coldly and firmly, then got up from his seat. Levance looked at him as he walked toward the door, nodding in acknowledgment. Without looking back, Leonel walked out of the room.
In his hand, he still held the invitation for Nelly Pepper.
‘While I’m out, I should probably deliver this invitation.’
He let out a faint sigh and headed for his horse. As he approached the office, he spotted Nelly as well. She was leading a donkey into the forest. Next to her were a large oak barrel and a large sprayer that Lizzy was maneuvering.
Leonel considered calling out to Nelly but turned to Lizzy instead.
“What are you doing here?”
“Oh! Duke Leonel!”
Leonel dismounted and inspected the oak barrel.
“Did you have an accident?”
“Uh, no, no, not at all!”
Lizzy stammered, her face showing signs of panic.
With a look demanding an explanation, Leonel urged her to continue.
“I was just startled by the donkey that Ms. Nelly was leading, and I…”
“Yes! Ms. Nelly had a cart hitched to the donkey, and she was spraying crops with the sprayer!”
Watering crops? While it hadn’t rained much lately, it didn’t seem necessary to haul water to this extent. Leonel opened the oak barrel and smelled an indescribable, strange odor.
“So, when I asked her what she was doing, she seemed very flustered, and I think she might have been up to something on her own again!”
Leonel straightened up and stared down at the oak barrel.
‘You do suspicious things. I don’t know if I can trust you, even if I wanted to.’
He sighed heavily.
Tom and Gerald, who were on their way to work, spotted Leonel and quickly saluted him. Sophie, who followed, greeted Leonel with a tense expression.
Leonel gave a curt order to the three employees who stood stiffly in front of him.
“Carry this and follow me.”
“Yes, Your Grace!”
They all responded in unison.
The empty oak barrel wasn’t very heavy, so Gerald carried it by himself. Tom, Sophie, and a hesitant Lizzy followed into the office.
Once Leonel was seated on the sofa, Gerald placed the oak barrel in front of him.
“What does this look like to you?”
Tom raised his hand promptly.
“It’s an empty oak barrel, Your Grace!”
“What was inside it?”
All four of them peered into the barrel, then looked up at Leonel, wrinkling their brows.
“It has a very strange smell.”
Leonel stared at the oak barrel with deep-set eyes.
Out of habit, he had been about to call Nelly Pepper by her name, but he quickly corrected himself after recalling Levance’s words.
“The estate manager said she sprayed the field with the liquid that was in here today. Hasn’t the estate manager been asking for anything suspicious lately?”
Tom glanced at the others when Leonel posed the question. Eventually, their eyes met.
Reluctantly, Tom spoke up.
“Well, about a week ago, she asked for a large quantity of eggshells.”
“Hmm… For what purpose?”
“She didn’t specify.”
Leonel’s expression soured, and Tom hesitantly defended Nelly.
“It won’t harm the fields, I’m sure of that. Ms. Nelly just giggled when she asked for them.”
“Don’t you think there’s something sinister behind a giggle like ‘hehehe’?”
The supervisors hastily denied Leonel’s suspicions with incredulous tones.
“But Ms. Nelly’s ‘hehehe’ is different!”
“That’s right. Something good always happens after her eerie laughter, right?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
Gerald and Sophie joined in enthusiastically defending Nelly. However, when Leonel’s expression remained unchanged, Tom added.
“That’s why we call it the ‘Hehehe of Good Luck.'”
“Or ‘Hehehe has done it”
Lizzy chimed in this time, with a proud expression as if showing off a trophy.
Leonel silently observed the four of them and asked.
“Isn’t something suspicious about this?”
“We don’t understand what you mean.”
“Until now, the estate residents have always been hostile to the estate managers.”
The supervisors and Lizzy nodded.
“But Nelly Pepper has gained the trust of the estate residents within a month, even your trust. It’s as if she intentionally walked in here.”
As soon as Leonel finished speaking, the supervisors vehemently disagreed, their faces showing disbelief.
“That’s only natural. Previous estate managers were authoritarian and treated the estate residents like slaves.”
“And they didn’t even bother to remember our names, using rude titles to address us. But Ms. Nelly is different.”
“A little while ago, Faust was in tears, not knowing how to repay Ms. Nelly. He said Ms. Nelly gave him all the food she had as thanks.”
“That’s right! She could have taken credit for the report she made, but Ms. Nelly didn’t let me!”
Lizzy, who had been watching their reactions, added another word.
“And when I was scared, she defended the Duke and his aides by saying they weren’t scary people! To doubt someone like her, you’re overthinking it…”
Lizzy’s voice quivered, and Leonel buried his face in his palm.
“It’s just that Ms. Nelly is so sweet and sincere that she’s earned people’s trust.”
Everyone seemed to be this way, and Leonel wondered if he had indeed formed preconceptions about Nelly Pepper.
Amidst the confusion, Sophie’s voice echoed in Leonel’s mind.
“If Miss Nelly is doing something, she surely has a purpose!”
That one sentence snapped Leonel back to his senses. He looked up at his three trusted subordinates and the one he hadn’t trusted much as a work assistant.
Their eyes were shining as if they were devout followers.
‘These guys… they’ve fallen for it. You don’t keep people so infatuated without any ulterior motive.’
Indeed, Nelly Pepper was suspicious. His suspicions had grown even stronger than before.