Where Andrei gets unwelcome news to and Tara is invited for tea....
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Episode 256. About 9 months (15)
"Chief, an undercover agent who deserted three months ago wishes to see you. He is currently in the custody of the Knights of Count Knox."
"Let him in."
From the Southern Count of Berg's branch office, he had received a report he’d gotten before that five of his subordinates had departed. However, here at the Knox county branch, four men had deserted over the last 6 months.
When asked why, none of the deserters could come up with a straightforward answer.
The cost of creating an undercover agent was equal to the price of a house in the Capital.
More than that, they had acquired the Black Society's superior intelligence gathering ability. So, if they turned to another organization, the damage to the Black Society would be a bigger issue.
The Black Society allowed its members to leave the organization at will.
This was possible because they were very satisfied with their guild.
The only good news was that none of them used their intelligence to join other intelligence agencies.
"Chief. I'm sorry, Sir. Heuk."
Andrei rose slowly to his feet, surprised to see Storm standing in the doorway of the warehouse, skinny and haggard. Curtison was equally surprised.
"Storm…. You look like hell. What happened? Why did you leave?"
The defector, called Storm, went down on one knee in respect. No, he broke down and sobbed. He never thought he'd see Storm cry. Moreover, the sturdy Storm he once knew was nowhere to be seen.
"Chief, help me! Help!"
Hearing the desperate voice, Andrei sat down in front of Storm. The agent was loyal, fervent, and did a good job. He was a loyal husband, who ran home without staying for the dinner party once a mission was over because he was running late.
When he heard news of Storm's departure a year after he had left the Capital to come down working in the branch, Andrei had been deeply shocked.
"What's going on? What happened to you, Storm?" He asked.
"My family is being held hostage. That's why on Count Knox's orders.... No, there seems to be a higher power and I cannot disobey their orders. Please find my family, Chief!"
Andrei slowly rose from his seat and paced the warehouse.
"Tell me what you've found out so far. Who dares to mess with the Black Society so boldly? I've been living quietly these days, so they think they can destroy my organization. Now, tell me, and I'll find out who the despicable criminals are and slaughter them!"
Andrei helped Storm stand up, his eyes flashing a brilliant phosphorescence. He quickly began to analyze the information he had uncovered.
About an hour later, Andrei summoned the three sharpest, highest-ranking intelligence officers in Knox.
"Storm, I want you to go back and live a normal life so as not to arouse suspicion. You three will go to the location Storm mentioned and gather as much information as you can, but we'll signal when everything is ready on our part. Your deadline is one o'clock, so be back by dawn tomorrow, and be sure to take care of yourself."
"Thank you, Chief."
With that, Storm and his men left. Andrei waited there for his men until the first light of dawn.
Then three men returned, one after the other.
"The iron gates to the basement were locked and inaccessible."
"There were no outsiders in sight. The only men in the whole town were the knights, the rest was solely composed of women, the elderly and children."
"There were a number of fresh excavations in a large clearing at the back of the village, and when I dug into the most recent one, hinted at by the color of the soil, I found the buried, tangled up bodies of three women."
Curtison swallowed hard, and Andrei's eyes were sharper than ever.
"I want you to infiltrate the central Ministry of Security and find out from any agents who have remained undetected if there is any investigation into this town called Black Crown, and if so, how far it has progressed, and everything else you can find out!"
"The central Ministry of Security acts primarily on the first-class orders of the Second Prince, so access to investigative information is not easy. It might take some time."
"I know…. If they don't find anything of interest, tell them to get caught on purpose."
As soon as I entered the Capital's〈Where is your teahouse again?〉 , I was led to the third floor, where about thirty or more tables with middle-aged and elderly wives were sitting at each table. *
Next to them were young ladies and young men of my age, all dressed in their finest attire.
What was this strange sight...?
Young ladies and gents were sitting at each table. With smiles on their faces, they were all trying to appear as the polite and true heirs of the family, the ones who would successfully lead the family's internal affairs in the future.
So.... This was the preliminary round of social life that I had only heard of until now.
I'd heard that there was a place where promising young men and women were introduced to each other ahead of the season. A small, private place, where the offspring of the most prominent Families of the Empire got to know each other and started setting future alliances.
It felt a bit like a group meeting.
There were probably 20 of the most prestigious families in the Capital gathered here.
I had just been invited for tea.
As I stared at the unexpected sight, unable to enter, a familiar voice spoke to me.
"I didn't know you were coming, hahaha."
It was Theodore, as expected.
"I was 99% sure that the Viscount might be here."
"Hahaha. I'm afraid I can't take your word for it. I'll guide you to my grandmother's table."
Stop laughing, people were looking at us!
I glared at him, my eyes screaming, "stop laughing!" but Theo just wrinkled his nose and laughed as if we were in an American sitcom.
Haa.... I sighed inwardly and looked away.
We were now under the gazes of the other tables, and there was a murmur of voices from the table right in front of the door.
'Who's that, and why is she being escorted by Theo?'
'Shush, keep it down. From what I heard, the matriarchs of the Families were close friends, so he has no choice but to escort her.'
'It's funny how you end up with the wrong guy for the right reasons.'
I couldn’t believe it. This was ridiculous.
Who was uncomfortable now, huh! And weren’t these whispers supposed to be out of earshot? Why was I hearing all of this?
Theo's smile faded and he politely extended his hand to me.
"I'm glad to see you, My Lady, after sending you a letter asking to meet and not hearing from you. But thanks to my Grandmother, I get to see you."
He spoke a little louder as if he wanted others to hear.
When I looked at his hand and looked at Theodore again, he made a dutiful expression and nodded briefly.
Did he do that on purpose?
I was not one to be affected by backstabbing and lowly behavior, but Theodore's demeanor made me take his hand in the most graceful gesture I knew.
And then I spoke up a little louder, as well.
"I don't know, I'm very busy."
A gasp could be heard from the table right in front of him, and Theo's lips twitched.
"Still, I would be honored if you could spare some time, My Lady."
Hmmm.... I put one finger to my chin and pretended to think about it for a moment, then shrugged slightly.
"Well. Since you asked, I'll give it some thought. Now, lead the way, Viscount!"
'Oh my.... '
'No way. She's lying....' It went on and on.
At the same time, Theo laughed softly. I glared at him, but his expression quickly turned serious.
And then he whispered quietly so only I could hear.
"As expected, My Lady. When you pretend, it's perfect. This is why I enjoy meeting you."
'.... Hearing that, I'll have to stop pretending like this from now on.'
Theodore looked the most radiant I had ever seen him in a tailored suit, like he was from the cover of a men's magazine. With a look and demeanor that would have won him a poetry prize, he gently took my hand and led me through the tables.
The eyes on each table followed his every move.
In the distance, I could see Grand Duchess Helen watching us with a wry smile, and I sighed heavily.
"Come on in. Tara, I really wanted you to taste this tea today."
Mmmm. No. No. No.
I shook my head, inwardly correcting the Duchess's words.
'Come and see, Tara. I wanted to show you today just how many families and how many lords and ladies are desperate to have Theodore.'
Yes, there was only one reason why Helen had called me to this dating frenzy.
She wanted to give me a bird's eye view of Theodore's place in the marriage market. 'No one in the Empire is as hot as Theo (except for the Princes), so let's get this marriage off the ground.'
Sure enough, I could see the women with their necks stretched out, eager to try to talk to Theo somehow.
Every time Theo moved, all eyes in the room moved in sync with him.
He drank his tea as if he were unaware of the stares, only mindful of Lady Helen and me.
If he was going to pretend he didn’t care, he at least shouldn’t sit like a model.
Editor's Note -
* So, I was puzzled when I came accross the Teahouse's name: "Where is your teahouse again?" And wondered why Munirang would call a respectable place with such a weird name. So I went for a search on the net and came accross this scam that is taking place mainly in China but that also has spread to Korea in more recent years:
Now you might be wondering what this has to do with Tara's current situation. Well, she is getting scammed by the Old Duchess. Tara thinks that she's to have her usual scheduled meeting with Helen when, in reality, she's set up to meet Theo and have the rumor mill going about their possible future nuptuals. Plus, this meeting is an add on to the 3 she originally agreed to. Now I find the Teahouse's name curiously appropriate and a nice dab at humor by our favorite Munirang. What do you think?
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