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    “So, what do you think? This is First Flush tea, procured from the Aswaies territory. I hope it suits your palate, young lady.”

    “Y-yes… it’s delicious.”

    Despite my response, I couldn’t taste anything at all.

    The refreshing aroma wafting from the bright golden liquid poured into the cup…

    Surely, under normal circumstances, this would be an exquisite tea. Regrettably, I lacked the composure to savor it properly at the moment.

    At one point, I had no idea how things would turn out, but surprisingly, I managed to secure an audience with the lord quite easily.

    I was shown to the reception room on the third floor of the lord’s mansion, located in the furthest corner.

    The room boasted a luxurious red sofa, a carpet adorned with vibrant geometric patterns, and walls decorated with numerous portraits of previous lords and mirrors taller than my height. Shelves and side tables displayed sculptures and vases filled with flowers.

    Every single aspect of the interior and furnishings exuded opulence at first glance. It was enough to make one hesitate to even shift on the sofa.

    Moreover, I was currently seated face-to-face with the lord, causing my tension to skyrocket.

    I could barely keep my voice from cracking.

    “Hmm…”

    In stark contrast to my nervous state, Lord Vishwa Witz Gorera of the Gorera Territory appeared extremely relaxed as he intently examined the petition in his hands. Although it was a fake prepared by the Blue-winged Knights, it was identical to the genuine article.

    One slightly surprising detail was the lord’s age. While I hadn’t directly inquired about it, he seemed to be around the same age as Gazelle, based on his appearance. I had vaguely assumed the lord would be a middle-aged man, but he was younger than I had imagined.

    Like the members of the Lord’s Knights, the lord had well-tanned skin and a robust physique. Living in a port town naturally led to sun exposure, it seemed.

    His hair was a dull blond, and his eyes were a bright yellowish-green. His face had angular lines, and his chiseled features made him resemble a Hollywood actor.

    “In other words, you left Belkarna and secretly entered Gorera City. Your original plan was to deliver this petition to the Blue-winged Knights and inform them about the current situation in Belkarna… is that correct?”

    “Y-yes. My brother, Rido, was supposed to act as a decoy to distract you while I handed the petition to the Blue-winged Knights. However…”

    I answered while averting my gaze from the lord, feigning an awkward expression.

    Well, I didn’t really need to feign it; I was genuinely feeling awkward and tense this whole time!

    My back had been drenched in cold sweat ever since I arrived!

    “However… when I learned that my brother had been captured by you… I thought I was prepared, but I couldn’t abandon him after all…”

    I subtly surveyed the room while keeping my face turned away from the lord.

    There was only one door leading in and out of the reception room, guarded by two male members of the Lord’s Knights. On my way to this room, I had also encountered Lord’s Knights patrolling the corridors.

    Even if I somehow managed to deal with those two and escape the room, fleeing from the third floor to the first floor would be challenging. The difficulty would only increase if I had to bring Rido along.

    In fact, I wasn’t even confident I could find my way from the third floor to the outside without getting lost…

    “I see. However, you must realize what will happen to the people of Belkarna if you hand this petition over to me, correct?”

    “…I understand. Even so, Rido is my only family. I will give you this petition. Please, I beg you, return my brother to me.”

    I desperately pleaded with the lord, just as I had practiced at the inn.

    After quietly observing me with a steady gaze, the lord addressed one of the knights standing by the door.

    “Hey, bring him here.”

    “Yes, my lord!”

    With that, one of the knights left the room.

    While waiting, I restlessly glanced back and forth between the lord and the door through which the knight had exited.

    Suddenly, my eyes met the lord’s, who was seated across from me.

    However, contrary to my expectations, the lord didn’t seem offended. Instead, he flashed me a friendly smile.

    “You said you were that young man’s sister, correct? Your facial features don’t resemble each other much.”

    “I-is that so…?”

    “Indeed. Moreover, your skin is smooth and lustrous. For someone living in such a shabby rural town, you’re quite well-groomed.”

    “I have been sickly and rarely ventured outside… That’s why I believed the town officials wouldn’t suspect me of carrying the petition.”

    My palms were growing unpleasantly sweaty.

    However, the lord didn’t press the matter further. He simply refilled my empty cup with fresh tea and said, “Please, have some more if you’d like.”

    But before I could reach for the second cup of tea, the sound of the door opening with a click echoed through the room.

    I quickly raised my head to look in that direction.

    There, led by the knight who had left earlier, stood Rido.

    “Rido…-nii!”

    I stood up from the sofa without thinking.

    Thank goodness, Rido was alive…!

    However, he was visibly battered and haggard. His left cheek bore a bruise, likely from being struck, and his eyelids were swollen. He was still wearing the same clothes as when we first met, so he probably hadn’t been able to change. He must not have been given proper meals either.

    “You…!? T-Takumi? Why are you here?”

    “Brother, I’m so glad you’re safe!”

    Rido, who had been brought in by the knight, stared at me with a perplexed expression.

    But there was no time for explanations now. I cut off his words with a loud voice and locked eyes with him, pleading.

    “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help but worry about you… I came to ask Gorera-sama to exchange you for the petition.”

    “The petition…!? You can’t be serious! If you hand that over, it’s the end for the town of Belkarna! I entrusted it to you so you could escape the lord’s knights’ watchful eyes. What in the world have you done!?”

    However, my desperate attempt to convey a message through my eyes seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.

    Rido had noticed the petition in the lord’s hands and visibly paled. Then, upon hearing my words, his face turned bright red as he exploded in anger. His intensity made me instinctively take a step back.

    “I entrusted it to you because I thought you would definitely deliver it to the Blue-winged Knights! That petition reaching the capital was the only way for everyone in Belkarna to be saved… Do you even understand what you’ve done!?”

    “I… I’m sorry…”

    Oh no, Rido is seriously furious!

    But in this situation, I can’t exactly blurt out, “Don’t worry, big brother! The petition I gave to the lord is a fake, so everything’s fine! ☆”

    “Hmm. I had my doubts at first, but judging from your reactions… it appears this petition is indeed genuine.”

    As I was flustered by Rido’s unexpectedly intense outburst, the lord, who had been seated on the sofa, muttered those words.

    “The contents are accurate, and it bears the town mayor’s signature and official seal. Moreover, your anger… This is undoubtedly the real petition.”

    Saying that, the lord showed the petition to Rido in a taunting manner before slowly tucking it into his own pocket. Upon witnessing this, Rido slumped to the floor as if all the strength had drained from his body.

    “No… What have I done…”

    After looking down at Rido, who had covered his face with his palms, the lord turned to me with a satisfied expression.

    “Now that I have this petition, I have no further need for him. As promised, I shall release him.”

    Oh… oh! Although the details deviated slightly from the plan, we’ve successfully traded Rido’s freedom for the petition! Gazelle, Felix, we did it!

    “So, you promise not to harm my brother any further, right?”

    “Yes, of course. You there, take this man and throw him out.”

    The two knights standing by the door frowned at the lord’s words.

    “My lord, are you certain? If he runs to the Blue-winged Knights…”

    “Hmph. Without the petition as evidence, the complaints of a mere commoner can be easily dealt with. The mayor of Belkarna is a more pressing concern. How did they manage to prepare such a document while under surveillance… Well, their efforts have now gone to waste.”

    “I see. Understood.”

    “We should immediately dispatch a swift horse to Belkarna and order the detention of those involved in this matter.”

    The two knights nodded at the lord’s words and forcefully grabbed Rido’s shoulders, making him stand up.

    Then, they dragged him away. Rido desperately struggled, but the two knights easily thwarted his attempts.

    “Damn it, let go of me!”

    “Stop resisting and come along!”

    “Be grateful you still have your life.”

    The two knights exited through the door, taking the shouting Rido with them.

    I also tried to follow the three of them, but the lord, who had stood up from the sofa, grasped my shoulder, preventing me from pursuing them.

    “…!”

    “Ah, my apologies. Did I grip too hard?”

    As I winced in pain, the lord apologized, but he still didn’t remove his hand from my shoulder.

    I looked up at him in confusion.

    “…Is there something else? The negotiation should be settled. I would like to take my leave now.”

    The exchange of Rido for the petition was complete, so I wanted to get out of here as soon as possible!

    To be specific, I wanted to leave before my crossdressing was exposed…!

    Yet, the lord only directed a fake smile at me, still refusing to release my shoulder.

    Wait, did he perhaps not hear what I said?

    “I believe I have already handed over the petition. I don’t think you have any further business with me…”

    “Indeed, our transaction has been successfully concluded.”

    Ah, so he did hear me.

    “Right? Then, I’ll be…”

    “I released that young man as agreed. However, I never promised to let you leave, did I?”

    …Huh? Huuuh?

    “Um, what do you mean by that…?”

    I looked up at the lord with trepidation.

    The lord still had that fake smile on his face.

    “Don’t worry. I’m not planning to do anything frightening. I just have something I want to ask you.”

    “Ask me?”

    “According to my subordinates’ report, when they ambushed that young man on the highway disguised as bandits, a boy and two skilled swordsmen came to his rescue. That boy is you, isn’t it? Although you’re dressed quite adorably now.”

    “…”

    I was rendered speechless by the lord’s words.

    W-wait a minute! He already knew I came here crossdressing!?

    Huh? And did the lord just openly admit that those bandits were his subordinates?

    For him to explicitly state that to me in this situation… could this be a “I’ll let you know before you die” kind of scenario?

    Then, I’m in an extremely dire situation right now!?

    “What happened to the two individuals who seemed to be your bodyguards, as mentioned in the report? According to my subordinates, they were quite skilled.”

    “They were… adventurers I hired. We parted ways when we arrived in Gorera City.”

    “I see.”

    There was no point in denying it in this situation. I reluctantly acknowledged the lord’s words.

    However, the lord didn’t inquire further about that matter. When I looked up, he seemed disinterested, with a distracted expression.

    Well, I was relieved he didn’t press for details about Gazelle and Felix, as I might have slipped up…

    “No matter. There’s another report I received. This one is more important to me…”

    “Important?”

    The lord’s fingers reached for my bangs.

    He twirled my hair with his fingertips, as if examining something.

    I wished he would stop touching it so much, as the wig might come off…!

    “The initial report stated that the boy who came to that young man’s rescue had black hair and black eyes. If you’re the boy mentioned in the report… then your current hair color must be the result of magic or a potion. Or could this be your true color?”

    “What’s the point of…”

    What was the significance of hair color? It seemed irrelevant.

    I was about to say that but closed my lips midway.

    Suddenly, my heart began to pound rapidly.

    It wasn’t due to nervousness.

    My body was getting hotter, and it became difficult to breathe.

    W-what the…!?

    “Ah, are you in pain? I apologize… I couldn’t obtain a proper magic dispelling potion from the Royal Institute of Magical Pharmaceuticals, so I had to procure one from the black market. It might have some side effects.”

    “Dispelling potion…?”

    I had no recollection of drinking such a thing. Moreover, he got it from the black market!

    When did he even… wait, could it be!?

    “You mixed it into the tea earlier… Why would you do such a thing…”

    I couldn’t muster any strength in my body. Breathing was laborious.

    Gasping for air, I collapsed onto the carpet from my knees.

    The lord looked down at me, writhing in agony on the carpet, with a delighted expression.

    “Ah, I was right! When I heard my subordinates’ report, I couldn’t believe it, but… you really do have black hair and black eyes. Marvelous.”

    The lord, with a face beaming with joy, knelt on the carpet. His fingers removed the ponytail from my hair.

    I noticed that the bangs visible at the edge of my vision had reverted to black.

    According to the lord’s words, my eye color had also returned to black.

    “Ah. And now that I look closely, even your features resemble ‘his’…”

    “…’His’…?”

    The lord fiddled with my hair, wearing a somewhat entranced expression. Bewildered by his sudden change in demeanor, I asked for clarification.

    “W-who… do I resemble…?”

    “The enchanting boy I saw once in the capital.”

    The lord disclosed this while continuously playing with my hair, his eyes fixed on some distant point in space.

    His gaze seemed to be focused on a faraway radiance, not present in this room.

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