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    “Ian’s body is unwell?”

    “Yes, My lord. He’s been in bed all morning, complaining of a stomach ache.”

    Marquis Bratz furrowed his brow as he fastened his cuff links. He had sensed an odd atmosphere in the dining room since morning. The servants kept glancing at the food in a strange manner.

    the marquis mistook it for the servants’ hesitation to report. In reality, it was because Ian had skipped his meal and was famished.

    “The doctor?”

    His tone conveyed more concern about a flaw in the reconciliation offering than worry for his son’s health. The butler nodded, relieved.

    “He just finished the examination and said there’s no major issue. It seems stress-related. He’ll monitor the condition today and tomorrow before preparing medicine.”

    “Is he feigning illness?”

    “Well, he has been overexerting himself lately. He’s always been frail, hasn’t he?”

    With a body that looked like it would blow away in the wind, he had been darting about incessantly. One could hardly recognize him as the child who first arrived at the manor. Derga clicked his tongue and retorted.

    “I heard there was a commotion at the main gate yesterday.”

    “Yes, my lord. Shall I prepare a punishment?”

    “Punishment? No. Just keep the doctor on hand and ensure his health is well-managed. The fool still doesn’t realize any lingering attachments will only burden him when he crosses the border soon. Tsk tsk.”

    Does he not know that everything tying him down here will become shackles?

    This is a fortunate development. Using only his mother to control the child was starting to be worrisome. Whatever change of heart occurred, Mother Philea has quieted down.

    She no longer raises a fuss demanding to see the child, and Ian doesn’t inquire about Philea’s well-being as he used to.

    ‘Compared to the beginning when he wailed to see his mother, it’s clear. His emotions are gradually numbing.’

    Moreover, Ian has been meeting Mollin separately two or three times a week. The old man must have some hidden motive, yet the brooch always returned untainted.

    At this point, his keen instincts whisper that some ploy is unfolding. Something intuitive and sharp.

    “What was that name again? Eric?”

    “It’s Beric, my lord.”

    “If Ian wants to meet him, arrange it and accommodate him as much as possible. An orphan, was it?”

    He had looked over the letter the tutor brought last night for handwriting verification. Even a stray dog could see it was an illiterate’s scrawl. It does get neater further down, but…

    Derga muttered with a scowl.

    “There’s a saying. Losing a lover is like losing your heart, and losing a friend is like losing a lung.”

    With his feet bound by the rope called ‘mother’, it was time to bind his wrists with the name of friendship. In the remaining month and a half, he had to thoroughly prepare everything to ensure the boy would sacrifice himself for the Bratz family even after crossing the border.

    “Teach Ian how to breathe. I’m curious to see how great a power friendship can be.”

    That way, when his breath is later squeezed, the pain and fear will return twofold. At Derga’s instruction, the butler bowed in response.

    “There won’t be any issues with managing the manor.”

    “Of course.”

    “Butler, I truly trust you.”

    “I won’t disappoint your faith.”

    “I’m counting on you.”

    “Then, I shall take my leave.”

    Knock.

    The butler left. Derga lit the wax stand. As the inner red wax slowly began to melt, he opened the drawer.

    Click.

    He reached inside with practiced ease. A round recess could be felt. He turned the diamond ring on his index finger and pushed it inward.

    Click.

    With a crisp sound, another secret drawer opened. From the outside, it seemed like an unremarkable mechanism, but in truth, an electric current flowed inside. Thoughtlessly jamming anything in would result in becoming a charred corpse on the spot.

    For example, like the fake key Derga gave the butler.

    ‘This butler is lasting quite long, at least.’

    Long ago, very long ago, a butler was once found as a corpse in Derga’s office. The Bratz family’s mouse trap, passed down for generations, had been properly triggered. Though suspected of colluding with the Cheonrye Tribe, the dead tell no tales.

    ‘He’s more perceptive than the previous butler, so he might know.’

    Derga never outright stated it was the seal’s storage location but subtly hinted that precious items were kept here. Didn’t he blatantly take out the brooch in front of Ian?

    Swish.

    Derga poured wax over the envelope, then lightly pressed the Bratz family seal. The vivid image of a tiger, symbolizing the family, was clearly imprinted.

    * * *

    Ian lay half-reclined on the cozy bed. He had schemed to be left alone in the annex, but unexpectedly, the household members were even more attentive. After the doctor’s visit, the servants brought an array of foods, making the morning busier than usual.

    “Hannah? Are you outside?”

    “Yes, young master.”

    Ian confirmed Hannah’s presence as he put on his outer robe.

    The current time was 3 PM. It was when the manor servants finished their late lunch and began cleaning the main building. A few still remained downstairs, but this was the time with the least activity.

    “Let’s go.”

    “Yes, young master.”

    Ian had decided to search the butler’s room with Hannah’s help. She would keep watch and, if someone approached, divert their attention.

    “But, you’ll really give me silver coins?”

    Naturally, as it was a highly risky task, compensation beyond food was promised. With three central government nobles on the same boat, how could he not obtain some silver coins?

    “Yes. Don’t worry.”

    “I’m not worried, I’m just pondering what to buy with the silver coins.”

    Hannah nimbly moved, surveying both sides of the corridor. No one was there. Ian also descended to the lower floor, minimizing the sound of his footsteps. As they were about to turn the corner and use the less frequented back stairs…

    “No way. Does that even make sense?”

    “It doesn’t. Hey, you got scammed. Hahaha!”

    Voices were heard. A servants’ quarter door closed, and the sounds gradually faded, indicating a brief visit. Hannah went down first and drew a circle, signaling no issues.

    “I’ll keep watch at the bottom of the stairs. If anything happens, I’ll make a loud noise, so be careful.”

    “Alright. Than-“

    Click.

    Ian paused while turning the handle. Locked rooms were hard to find in the manor. Even the marquis’s bedroom was always open, as far as he knew. Guards stood at the front, but still.

    “Is it locked?”

    “…It won’t open.”

    Did the tutor experience this too? Judging by the circumstances that day, he guessed it had failed. But to think he couldn’t even enter. As Ian contemplated using mana, Hannah gestured for him to step aside.

    “Please wait a moment.”

    And there she was, poking the keyhole with a hairpin. Ian tilted his head with a doubtful expression. How could a door open like that…?

    Click.

    “It opened?”

    “It’s open now.”

    Hannahh casually dusted her hands as if it were a simple matter. When Ian looked back with great surprise, the child laughed, reinserting the hairpin into her hair.

    “Didn’t I tell you? I have many siblings.”

    “So?”

    “In a house with many siblings, doors are constantly being locked and unlocked. They express their dissatisfaction or playfulness that way. A simple handle like this can be opened with a fork.”

    “I think it’s a talent.”

    “If you call this a talent, the neighborhood kids will go wild. Hurry and do your work.”

    Hannah was aware that she lived near the red-light district, but she didn’t realize how it influenced her. Picking locks, secretly passing messages, swapping alcohol and water—these were unfamiliar acts to commoners.

    Creak.

    Ian entered the butler’s room, leaving Hannah behind. It was a modest room with just a bed, a desk, and a single wardrobe. It was so neat and sparse that it felt austere.

    “Hmm.”

    Ian briskly crossed the room, looking around.

    What was it? What did the tutor want to obtain from the butler?

    Opening the wardrobe door wide, a bundle of keys hung on the wall. Roughly dozens, more than ten bundles. It seemed to contain all the keys to the manor.

    Jingle-

    Each key had its purpose written on it. 1st floor left, first utility room, second utility room… Ian flipped through them quickly, searching for the main building’s office bundle.

    ‘Here it is. Office, office’s side bedroom.’

    And then, a strange key caught between them. Its tip was bulbous, as if a bead was attached. There was no label indicating its use, and above all, it seemed quite heavy and made of a different material than ordinary keys.

    Knock knock.

    At that moment, Hannah urgently knocked on the door from outside. Someone was coming up to this floor. Ian opened the box at the bottom of the wardrobe. It contained miscellaneous documents, identification papers, and a free pass within the territory.

    Knock knock-!

    The knocking grew more urgent. Ian had no choice but to tidy up the wardrobe and leave the room. As soon as the door closed, his eyes met a servant who had come up the stairs.

    “Young Master Ian? Hannah?”

    “What brings you out here? How are you feeling?”

    Hannah rolled her eyes. Ian naturally walked in the direction of his gaze and replied.

    “I felt uncomfortable lying down all day. I thought I’d take a short walk.”

    “You can’t! The doctor said you mustn’t move at all.”

    The servants fussed and pushed Ian’s back, with Hannah scurrying behind. They exchanged glances.

    ‘Did you find what you were looking for?’

    ‘I’m not sure.’

    The only things that stuck in his memory were the unfamiliar-shaped key and the free pass within the territory. There wasn’t a single book, so if the tutor wanted to obtain something, it had to be one of those two.

    “If Young Master Ian doesn’t recover soon, we’ll get scolded.”

    “Hannahh, stop bothering Young Master Ian and come out.”

    “Oh, wait, sisters! Just a moment-“

    Bang!

    The servants left their reminders and dragged Hannah out. The space became quiet again. Ian sat by the window, staring at the flower pot, lost in thought.

    The bulbous key, the pass, and the tutor. He should probably prod the tutor about what he wanted during the next lesson.

    ‘Maybe the key itself doesn’t exist.’

    Derga definitely took out the brooch without any special action, just reaching in with his hand. Mana devices like fingerprint recognition existed, but they weren’t something Derga would possess in this era.

    Then, a commotion was heard outside the door.

    Thump! Thump!

    Footsteps echoing through the corridor were heading this way. Ian finally turned his head to look at the door.

    Was it Derga? He might be coming to vent his anger over the feigned illness.

    Thump!

    The presence stopped in front of the door. Then, it pounded on the door as if to break it down. Ian frowned and tilted his head.

    “…Who is it?”

    “That must mean I can enter, right?”

    As soon as he recognized the familiar voice, the door swung open. Red hair and eyes were visible through the gap.

    “How ya doin’?”

    There stood Beric, looking utterly triumphant.

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