Kyle makes a decision while Tara's birthday celebration begins.
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Episode 229. About 10 months (106)
"Then what about the rumors? Should we do it by the book, designate them as banned songs and crack down on it, Your Highness?"
"It's a rumor fueled by money so if we block the source of funding it could disappear, but its claims are intriguing enough that if we ban it, the rumor might spread even more."
"What if we cover it up with other rumors?"
“As you know, to cover up a rumor like this, you have to replace it with an even bigger one. Even if a big enough rumor could be created and spread in a timely manner, it could prove problematic. Rumors like that could sow unease in the minds of the Empire's citizens and undermine their confidence in the Imperial Family's leadership."
“The highest priorities for the people of the Empire are their sources of food and income, and such rumors could create unease about their livelihoods. Therefore, any rumors that risk confusing the public will not benefit the Empire overall.”
"Then what should we do?"
Kyle was lost in thought. Then, a member of the social order maintenance team cautiously raised his hand and stepped forward.
"The tune of the song is so catchy that it's easy to sing along to, so why don't we use it? Why don't we just change the lyrics a little and keep the tune instead of creating a new rumor?"
"Oh!" The team members standing next to him exclaimed and nodded. Another member right behind the first man raised his own hand and added.
"I think it would be a good idea to make a second verse to the same song. The earlier version of the song is so popular that it won't be easily forgotten. And since it’s a song, I think it’s smart to add new lyrics to the second verse. Of course, it would be linked to the insidious contents of the first verse, but it could be more hopeful... it would be nice if it could say something about the future of the Empire being bright."
Kyle nodded slowly.
"That's a good idea. The original tune is catchy and very memorable, so if we just focus on having people sing the second verse, the effects of original lyrics are more likely to be diluted."
"Well, if that's the case, we'll have to spend the same amount of money on it as they have, but the Department of Public Security's budget isn't substantial enough, Your Highness." Mack said with a serious expression.
It was possible to accomplish it here in Monteo with the Department of Security's budget. However, the song had spread to the Central region of the Empire. Mack knew very well that their funds wouldn't extend that far.
“There is no need to use the Department of Public Security's budget. The money will come out of their pockets."
Mack was so curious he wanted to ask more, but he wouldn't since Kyle had instructed him not to.
"First of all, we’ll establish this as our headquarters and send messages to each small town where these groups are located. We'll order them captured and interrogate those distributing the money. Mack, you're in charge of this task."
"Yes, Your Highness."
Next, Kyle instructed the men standing behind him.
"We haven't caught all the members of this organization yet, so now you will focus on rounding them all up."
"Yes, Your Highness!"
The members of the Social Order Team exited the conference room, leaving Mack and Kyle alone.
"He confessed too easily."
"You think it could be a trap?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
"Aren't these allegations too detailed to be false? These people also display none of the loyalty that would be required to keep this kind of thing a secret, this scheme is simply too unprofessional. They’re just a group of regional aristocrats. It's a vicious plot, but it's been handled very sloppily. I'll be more certain when I can confirm it myself."
"What do you mean ‘confirm it’...?"
"It's highly likely that one person planned this move while another executed it."
“Who would dare to do such a thing? His Highness the First Prince-...!"
Mack stopped talking and shut his mouth in surprise.
The First Prince had not come up directly in the interrogations, only names of people connected to his First Aide. However, if the subordinates of the First Prince's Aide were the ones issuing the orders, it was natural to assume that the leadership and overall direction had come from the First Prince himself.
"Yes. Curiously, it appears that's what happened."
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Just as Kyle finished speaking, an urgent knock sounded from outside the door. As if he had been waiting, a guard burst in and reported.
"Your Highness. What a mess...- Um, a Knight arrived who says he's a leader of the Phoenix Knights and he showed me his identification, but I haven't received any instructions, so I'd like to ask...-!"
However, before the guard could finish his sentence, Nick tried to rush through the door but two other guards stopped him. Kyle raised his hand indicating they should fall back.
"It's all right. Let him in."
As soon as Nick entered, he got down on one knee, put his left hand over his chest, and bowed his head.
Then with a very serious expression on his face, Nick began to report, still breathing heavily.
"Huff...- Huff. Y-Your Majesty! Your ha- humble servant...- Huff. Nick Bright, Haa. Huff. Huff. I've been travelling for four days and nights. Hah... Huff.... to get to Monteo in the South.. I galloped all the way from the Capital and thought you were at Reese Castle, so I went straight there, but they said you'd already departed for here, and your humble servant, who would be dead were it not for his loyalty, had no choice but to stay up all night. I almost died riding here. I rode as fast as I could to get here, Your Highness!"
Around the same time, the hall of the Elias Family mansion was lit up.
The official birthday banquet was scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m., starting with the cake cutting ceremony.
Butlers and assistant butlers greeted guests in the hall, while Countess Victoria, who had arrived in the hall early, also welcomed the guests throughout.
Isabelle had offered to do it, but Victoria obliquely refused, stating she was the one who had sent out the invitations.
Victoria smiled the whole time, greeting her guests with a benevolent demeanor.
All of the guests praised Victoria until their mouths ran dry, complimenting her on her attentiveness.
Even so, whenever she turned her back people stared and whispered.
There was still plenty of time to spare, but the mansion was already crowded because so many people had been invited.
Some of the visitors who had already been assigned rooms had left to find their accommodations in the annex or mansion's guest quarters.
Many of them had left their luggage behind in order to look around the mansion.
Excluding the visitors perusing House Elias' garden, practice yards, and office building, at least 50 guests were present inside the main hall alone.
Add to that the groups of servants who trailed in their wake, and the number of people present in the hall was even larger.
Those who attended alone were mainly young ladies close in age to Tara, who came from prestigious Capital families.
"Thank you for inviting me, even though I'm not acquainted with Lady Tara."
"Oh my! My Tara will be very grateful you're here."
"I'm quite envious of her, since you're holding such a grand banquet in her name even though she hasn't even made her social debut."
"Hahaha. Is that so? Do you think my daughter, Tara, will like it?"
"Of course! Of course! Even your real daughter... Ah...! Oh my! I'm sorry. I've committed a great disrespect, ma'am."
"Hohoho. It's okay, it's okay. Just be careful in front of my daughter."
"My God, you are too kind and generous!"
Victoria was filled with aristocratic pride, as she and the young ladies concluded their greetings with pleasant smiles. The young ladies giggled amongst themselves and kept glancing back at Victoria as they climbed the stairs. Countess Victoria's orange dress was very conspicuous, but it was the rumors about her insanity that drew so many glances.
Next, a group of middle-aged ladies greeted Victoria with their servants at their backs.
"Oh! Thank you for coming."
"You are a truly commendable mother to celebrate your daughter's birthday with such grandeur, Countess."
"Hoho. Of course, it's the least I can do. You can't imagine my affection for Tara."
"Oh, indeed, sometimes the affection you develop for a child is greater than that which you gain from giving birth. That must be the case here. How admirable!"
"Oh please! That's too much praise! Please stay with us until tomorrow morning. Hohoho."
"Yes. Of course. Ho ho ho."
After a while, the noble ladies bustled away and a large man stood before Victoria. His red silk tie clashed with his coppery skin.
Behind the man stood three men in servants' garb with their heads deeply bowed.
The man in front of Victoria held out his invitation. The man's hands, exposed by the sleeves of his jacket, appeared very large and rough.
Victoria gulped, slowly accepting and opening the invitation.
It was her invitation, the one she'd handed directly to Donnie at his gambling house.
"We- welcome. Come on- come on in."
The man stepped close without warning, taking Victoria's hand and slowly bringing it to his lips. Goosebumps rose all over Victoria's body, but only the edges of her lips trembled.
"Until we do it, don't even look at me or pretend to know me."
Seeing his sharp eyes glance up at her, Victoria unconsciously tried to pull her hand from his grip, but the man grabbed her tightly and refused to let go.
"Yes... Yes, yes."
"Preparations will be made for before the fireworks show. Please arrive right afterwards as planned. Is there any change in the location?"
The man whispered with his lips on the back of her hand, his words neither fast nor slow. Once again, goosebumps tingled down Victoria's spine.
Victoria gulped and subtly nodded in response to the man's raspy words.
The man walked past her quickly with his servants following behind him.
He'd only held Victoria's hand and spoken to her for less than 30 seconds. But Victoria, overwhelmed by the grim atmosphere, felt as though the encounter had lasted an eternity.
He was dressed like an aristocrat, but his manner of speech and stride conveyed his history of rough deeds. Struck by guilt, Victoria glanced around, but to her relief no one was paying attention to her.
‘Haah. I hoped for a good outcome... And it's important this task gets completed successfully. Yes, well, at least I can be confident when it comes to this matter!'
The feeling of unease disappeared instantly, things were progressing smoothly after all. Her stiff and swollen legs should have been irritating, but she hardly noticed. A gush of laughter leaked out of her.
At that moment, Victoria met her own gaze in the mirror hanging on the wall of the central hall. She was laughing so hard her cheeks hurt.
‘Oh, no. What if someone's watching? Think of what you must look like, Victoria!'
Victoria lightly pinched the back of her hand and the pain killed her exhilaration.
Again, she summoned her most benevolent smile.
‘You're doing great. Joy will come at the end of hardship, Victoria. So just be patient a little longer. Phew.'
Several peals of empty laughter floated through the hall, while Chloe and her dedicated maid, Anne, watched blankly from the stairway landing. They had just eaten lunch and were about to head up to their rooms.
"... Mother is really overdoing it today, isn't she, Anne?"
“Isn’t it nice that she's gotten a chance to dress up after such a long time? It's been over a year since we last had a banquet at the mansion hosted by the Countess.”
"Is that so? That's true. My mother likes banquets a bit too much."
"Yes, my Lady. You should head up yourself and dress. I can't believe you want to go to the office on a day like today. Working too hard will ruin your skin."
"Can't you just give me a massage, Anne?"
"That's right. Good thing your ladyship has me to take care of your skin. Hehehe."
Chloe grinned at Anne as she climbed the stairs, but her smile quickly disappeared when she glanced down at her mother again.
"It's definitely too much..."
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