Under the Oak Tree - Chapter 249
“I have realized now that it’s better for me to be beside you and watch over you so that you won’t be able to do anything reckless.”
On the day of departure, Riftan murmured darkly as he watched her climb into the carriage and Max flushed at the statement. He appeared half-terrified at the thought of what she would do if he left her behind. His eyes were boiling with frustration and his face was cold, like an iron mask. Having spent a few days without a good night’s sleep worrying about the thought, he seemed to be more nervous than ever.
“I’ve never seen anything good from leaving you behind. It would be beneficial to my sanity if I put you where my eyes can reach you.”
Instead of retorting, Max sat silently in her seat and nodded obediently. He narrowed her eyes at her as if she was scornful, then bent over to cover her body with a coat made of fur. Despite being furious to the tip of his head, he carefully tended to her comfort by placing the charcoal cast iron heater on the floor of the carriage and made sure the windows did not leak.
“It will take a day and a half to get to Robern Castle. We will be moving non-stop until we cross the Anatolium territories, so tell me if you’re uncomfortable.”
Riftan hesitated as if he could not shake his doubts away, but eventually sighed and closed the carriage’s door. Max pulled up the carriage curtains and looked out the window. About twenty knights were sitting on top of their horses, standing in a row on the left and right sides of the carriage. Hebaron could not figure out why he had been chosen to remain in the castle to maintain Anatol’s defense and, instead, Uslin and Elliot were made to lead the journey. Riftan gave them instructions and sat on top of his horse and before long, the carriage began to roll slowly.
Max huddled as much as she could so as not to freeze in the cold air, and silently gazed at the scenery passing through the window. The coldest period had passed, but the season was still winter. The ground was icy and slippery, and on the left and right sides of the road, the sleet that fell last night sparkled like diamonds. She looked worriedly at the knights driving horses in the cold east wind, lowered the curtains, and leaned her back against the seat.
In two days, a battle more intense than fighting a group of monsters would commence, she had to stock up on her physical strength as much as possible. She gently closed her eyes and recalled the indifferent faces of King Ruben and the cruel and stubborn face of her father. Dealing with them would be ten times more difficult than dealing with an army of trolls. In a gloomy but humble atmosphere, the Knights left Anatol in the blink of an eye and ran to the northeast. The entire world was silent, like it had fallen into a deep sleep, so she had no worry about encountering goblins or werewolves even once in their journey. As soon as they left the Anatolium, Max gave Elliot a skeptical look.
“Du-during the winter season… it seems that the monsters’ activities are also decreasing.”
The knights were gathered in the middle of a field to prepare lunch in a full swing. Elliot, who was building a bonfire, looked at her with a slight smile.
“That’s because we have scoured the whole Anatolium over the past season, sweeping out all the monster habitats in the area.”
Ruth, who was tearing up jerky into a large pot, added an explanation. “In the first place, the movement of the monsters was caused by the excessive increase in the number of trolls. The ecosystem of the monsters is closely connected, so when one of them expands their territory, the other monsters seem to move in search of a new habitat. Since the Allied forces nearly wiped out the trolls that were spreading at a terrifying rate in the north, the monsters that have gone south must have returned to their original habitat.”
“We-well then now… the concern for monsters… will diminish.”
“It will diminish way more than before.”
After lunch, they were on their way again without delay. As Ruth said, they didn’t encounter even a single goblin their whole trip to the Count’s castle, it was perhaps the most peaceful ride she has ever experienced. At dusk, they reached a small town and there they rented two huts, spent the night, and left as soon as dawn came. Thanks to their speed on the road, they were able to reach Castle Robern before noon the next day.
Max got out of the carriage and looked around the fortress with a gloomy atmosphere. A blue-gray wall surrounded it and an iron-shaped tower rose from the left and right of the gate like a sentinel. Exhausted from the strange pressure she felt, Max walked over to Riftan’s side and he pulled her close with one arm as if protecting her, walking silently. When the guard led them through a gate located inside the castle grounds, they came out into a garden with beautiful cypress trees and a long staircase that led to the castle. The servants rushed as they descended the stairs.
“Welcome. The Count is anticipating your arrival.”
“And the others…?”
“The lord is the first to arrive. The others are likely to arrive tomorrow.”
At the words of the man who appears to be the butler, Max relaxed her shoulders. She was relieved that she didn’t have to confront her father right away. One of the knights who were following behind them muttered in a low voice.
“We’ll have a chance to catch our breaths for at least a day…”
Max totally agreed with that. They followed the servants into a spacious hall covered with smooth marble. There, a man with a profound impression, along with dozens of servants, greeted them. Max noticed immediately that he was Count Robern just by seeing his luxurious clothes, the commonly peculiar pale face of the nobles, and the bored look in his eyes: those things were enough for her to quickly recognize the owner of the castle.
He took a deep sigh, skipping the welcome greeting. “You did something annoying, Calypse.”
Max frowned. No matter how high his position was, Riftan was also a lord who ruled a territory. Wasn’t it too rude not to have basic courtesy? However, Riftan responded bitterly, as if the man’s attitude was familiar to him.
“I will make sure the Count does not suffer any harm.”
“The fact that I am in league with you has already left me in the eyes of the Duke of Croix. The top merchants unilaterally ended deals with me, making unreasonable excuses. It is already obvious why.” The count complained. “Why did you do something like prodding a beehive, you already knew how stubborn he is.”
“He deserved what happened.”
“What I meant was, what was the point of doing such a thing? You have been patient and held back, and now you did something like that… I can’t understand you.” The man stepped back and questioned him overwhelmingly. “I also made a significant investment in the business that Anatol was promoting. Now, if the day comes that you are exiled, wouldn’t the roads that you have completed be completely useless? I don’t want you to lose the land you’ve spent 10 years of your life developing. If you do not get the Duke’s favor in this meeting, we will suffer tremendous losses.”
Max’s face darkened at the increasingly serious conversation. Sensing her mood, Riftan squeezed her shoulder tightly and glared at the Count.
“We have traveled through the cold weather. How long do we have to stand like this?”
The Count frowned slightly and then shook his head with a sigh. “I was too hasty to question. I have the rooms ready. Go and take a rest.”
As he waved a hand, the waiting servants behind him stepped forward. “Starting tomorrow, a difficult war of attrition will begin. It would be better to have a firmly open mind. I am already on the same boat as you, so I am thinking of helping you as much as possible, but there is not much I can do. I hope to see what trick you have up your sleeve to overcome this crisis.”
After his gloomy warning, the Count climbed the stairs. Max gazed at his back and made a complex and subtle expression. The Count’s words were disconcerting, but at least it was good to know that he was going to side with Riftan. Count Robern was one of the most influential nobles in southern Whedon: although he was not comparable to the Duke of Croix, his support was of considerable force. Following the guidance of the servants, Max entered the luxurious guest room and smiled at Riftan.
“He… He appears eccentric, but he seemed to be worried about Riftan.”
“It’s his own self-interest that he is concerned with, not me.” Riftan took off his armor and hung it on the trunk and snorted at the end of his sentence. “The Count made a significant investment in the road constructions. He is anxious that his planned trading business will be ruined. Despite the notoriety of the Anatolium, it is simply due to the reputation of the Remdragon Knights that countless traders have decided to enter the port of Namhae.”
That meant there would be nobles from the south who would soon side with Riftan. Even if the arbitration failed and it reached the court of the palace, it couldn’t be pushed unilaterally by the Duke of Croix. Max had some hope. Riftan soon changed his clothes and headed to Count Robern’s office to discuss tomorrow’s meetings. After bathing in the hot water brought by the maids, she unwrapped her bag of clothes and wondered what kind of clothes she would wear tomorrow. She may have the opportunity to speak to the king, so she couldn’t appear shabby, but it shouldn’t be too flashy either. She wanted to look as elegant, genuine, and appealing as possible.
‘That’s the least I can do for Riftan…’
After deliberating about it a lot, Max decided to wear a dark blue dress. Wearing those clothes and standing in front of the mirror, her face looked even more pale and depressed. She stood in front of the mirror and looked closely at herself and practiced defending Riftan. Her voice was not heard more than usual because she was so nervous, but her pronunciation seemed to improve a bit as she spoke persistently and repeatedly. As much as she was doing that, she was able to awkwardly present her own arguments, gaining a bit of confidence, but the next morning, when she saw the Duke of Croix’s carriage enter the castle, in no time she felt as if she were a helpless child.
Max stood in front of the window and watched her father come up the stairs. The Duke seemed to have led a hundred knights. Knights in shining armor entered endlessly, and high-ranking priests and wizards trailed after him. It was as if he was not coming to a meeting but to war.
‘Surely… he’s not going to attack Riftan while pretending to comply with the king’s command, is he?’
Her eyes widened suspiciously. However, when she saw her father constantly rolling his eyes with an alert expression, those doubts quickly disappeared. The duke brought his own troops simply for his own safety. He may have been traumatized by Riftan’s ruthless attack. Max, who looked closely at him, who was walking as if someone was chasing him, picked up her robe and left the room. Then Elliot, who was guarding the door, immediately blocked her path.
“What seems to be the problem, m’lady?”
“I think my fa-father has arrived. Be-before the talks start… It’s better to have a conversation with him at least once…”
“Any contact with the duke is prohibited until His Majesty arrives.” Elliot shook his head firmly.
“If you face each other before the talks begin, your emotions will escalate, and things will only get worse. We have to wait for the king to arrive.”
It made sense. In the presence of King Ruben, not even the Duke of Croix would be able to speak excessively. Riftan would also put aside the kind attitude. In fact, it was the part that she was worried about the most. Wouldn’t Riftan, who might be driven mad by the Duke Croix’s biting and cruel taunts, hasten, determined to make a deadly decision? Even in her imagination, it made her shudder.
Max wandered impatiently around the room, staring out the window constantly. At noon, the knights with royal flags and three carriages finally entered Robern Castle. She went down to the Great Hall to meet the king and hundreds of people were already in the great hall. Elliott guided her courteously, as she wandered around, not knowing where to go.
“Please do not leave my side. During the meeting, I will be the escort of the lady.”
Max followed him and stood behind where the Knights of the Remdragon were. Just in time, King Reuben led Princess Agnes, and a group of castle attendants. Riftan, the Duke of Croix, and Count Robern, the lord of the castle, approached and knelt in front of the monarch.
“It must have been difficult coming a long way, Your Majesty.”
As the count bowed his head politely, King Ruben waved a hand with a grim face.
“It was really difficult. It is the middle of winter, and you’ve caused me such a hassle.” The king’s golden eyes gazed at his subjects arrogantly. “I came all the way here with a heavy burden. I’d like to state first that I will be gravely offended if my travel to here will be in vain, Duke Croix.”