Under the Oak Tree

Chapter 445 - 206
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Maxi glowered furiously at Richard Breston. Despite having wielded a massive greatsword with a blade lodged in his shoulder, the man looked infuriatingly relaxed. He leisurely drank from a wine bottle as a hierarch tended to his wound.

"I did overdo it a bit, didn't I?" Breston said, lazily, taking a swig. "Tell your friend I feel bad for crippling him."

The room fell into a tense silence. Everyone seemed to be holding their breaths. Riftan advanced slowly toward Breston, his intent clear. Maxi reached out to stop him, but Gabel blocked her, shaking his head.

"My lady, please, you must stay out of this."

"B-But..."

Even Riftan would not escape punishment if he were to draw blood here. She was about to say as much when Riftan spoke in an unexpectedly steady voice.

"Whatever you just did cannot be called a duel."

Maxi's eyes snapped to her husband.

Looking at Breston, Riftan asked in a chillingly calm voice, "Do you so badly want to fight me that you'd tarnish your honor?"

"Only realizing that now, are you? You're more dim-witted than I thought." Leaning forward, Breston gave Riftan a ferocious smile. "You'll end up like that little pup of yours if you expect to have an honorable duel with me, Calypse. I plan to fight like a dog."

He growled, hound-like, then erupted into laughter. His demeanor was so eerie that Maxi involuntarily took a step back.

Breston grabbed his greatsword, which was propped against the wall. "Shall we do it right now? Anytime is fine with me."

Riftan's impassive eyes bore into the man's face. After a moment of stifling silence, a trumpet blast announced the next match.

"The next round is between Sir Riftan and Sir Lionel! May the knights enter the arena!" the administrator called.

The tension in the room eased slightly. Unfolding his arms, Riftan let out a dry chuckle. "I think I can bear to wait another day."

As he turned toward the arena entrance, he added coldly, "My sword is much more precise than yours, Breston. You'll regret ignoring my warning."

"My, I am terrified," Breston sneered, leaning back against the wall.

Riftan looked at him, eyes flashing, before heading to the arena. Maxi almost followed, but stopped herself with great effort. Right now, she knew even telling her husband to be careful might give Breston more fodder for his taunts.

Biting her lips, she shot a glare at the northerner, then turned toward the infirmary. Though she was confident in Riftan's skills, she could not bear to watch him fight at the moment. The day had been filled with enough suspense and shock.

She tried to block out the roaring cheers behind her as she sought Ruth. Assisting with healing would be better than sitting in the stands, paralyzed with fear. After checking on the pale-faced Ursuline, Maxi began searching for clean towels and hot water.

***

After his final match of the day, Riftan immediately left the arena for the infirmary. When he got there, however, Ursuline was nowhere to be seen. After scanning the room, he pivoted to leave, only to halt at the sound of Sejuleu Aren's voice behind him.

"Your mage took him to the basilica. The treatment apparently went well."

Riftan turned to face Sejuleu Aren, who was leaning casually against a column, dressed in the crimson battle gear of the Bolose Royal Knights.

"Mind if we talk for a moment?" Sejuleu asked.

"I'm not in the mood," Riftan said frostily before stalking down the corridor.

Sejuleu followed, sighing heavily. "Very well. I will do the talking, you listen."

Riftan said nothing as he marched down the corridor, where the glow of sunset was streaming in.

Falling into step beside him, Sejuleu said, "You and I will be facing each other in the semi-finals tomorrow. It seems the pope doubts my chances against Richard Breston."

He snorted loudly before continuing, "The Council cannot risk their 'reincarnation of Wigrew' being defeated by an opponent of the armistice. The pope's grand scheme is for you to defeat me in the semi-finals, then take down Breston in the final."

"And your point is?"

They stopped by the back gate. The stadium was nearly empty, leaving them alone in the dim, shadowy passageway. A heavy silence settled around them.

Leaning against a column, Sejuleu said seriously, "This tournament must be a dignified event. As such, I hope you will adhere to the code of chivalry to the end."

"I didn't expect such soft words from you," Riftan replied with a wry smile. "You needn't fear. I won't ruin that comely face of yours in front of an audience."

Sejuleu shook his head, laughing dryly. "How kind. But it is not me I'm asking you to spare; it's Richard Breston. No matter how vile he is, I beg you to uphold your knightly honor."

Riftan's gaze turned icy. "I had no idea you were so fond of him."

"I don't make this request for his sake," Sejuleu replied, his gaze intense. "You have seen it for yourself - that man blatantly disregards the code of chivalry. No doubt he wants to turn the tournament into some back-alley brawl. You mustn't stoop to his level."

"And why not?" Riftan asked with a cold smile. "He threatened my wife and tried to cripple my knight, all to provoke me. I have tolerated him long enough. I see no reason to continue doing so."

"Don't you?" Sejuleu straightened himself. "The Grand Basilica of Osiriya is hosting this tournament to promote unity among the Seven Kingdoms. They're also using Wigrew's myth to win back the public's trust. Richard Breston wants to sabotage all that. He's purposely provoking you to turn this whole affair into a disgraceful spectacle."

When no reply came, Sejuleu's face hardened as he realized Riftan still wanted to retaliate despite knowing Breston's intention.

"You told me you would protect the armistice," Sejuleu pressed. "Richard Breston is the son of Balto's greatest hero. Do you think Geyhart Breston will continue to support the armistice if his heir is killed or crippled at a tournament hosted by the Grand Basilica?"

"Breston started this. Only he should be held responsible for his actions.”

"A parent's judgment is clouded when it comes to their children. Their relationship may be strained, but Geyhart Breston cares very much for his son. It would be unwise to make an enemy of such a man."

Riftan scowled. Logicially, he knew Sejuleu Aren was right, but his boiling anger made it hard to accept this reasoning.

Noting Riftan's unyielding expression, Sejuleu shook his head. "If you are bent on drawing blood, then I am left with only one option. I will have to defeat you to compete in the finals myself."

Riftan's lips twitched. "Didn't you come to convince me because you know that's not possible?"

Sejuleu Aren snorted loudly. "While I admit your skills surpass mine, I've never considered beating you an impossibility. Anything can happen in a competition."

Riftan studied him, somewhat surprised by the man's confidence despite acknowledging his opponent's superior skills.

After patting Riftan's shoulder, Sejuleu turned toward the exit. "Just you wait. I shall bring you down a peg or two."

With that, Sejuleu walked away. Riftan watched him leave before making his way to the stable.

As soon as Riftan entered the knights' accommodation, the lively chatter in the hall ceased abruptly. His eyes swept over the knights gathered around the tables for a late dinner before he proceeded to the stairs. High-ranking knights were assigned private rooms on the second and third floor of the annex.

He walked down the long, illuminated corridor and finally knocked on the door at the end. Knowing Ursuline's dislike for noise, it was more than likely that this was his room.

Inside, the room was unsurprisingly neat. Riftan squinted into the dimness, his eyes adjusting to see Maxi sitting by a large bed. Despite knowing she was there to tend to the wounded, it irked him to find his wife in another man's chamber.

He approached and gently placed a hand on her slender shoulder. She looked up at him, her expression weary. His petty jealousy dissolved at the sight of her ashen face.

Glancing at Ursuline, who lay on the bed as still as a corpse, he asked grimly, "Is he badly hurt? Is his arm..."

"N-No, he is all right," Maxi replied in a hushed whisper. "The treatment was successful, but it will...take time for him to regain full use of his arm. A major muscle was severed, and the nerves connected to his fingers were damaged, so there might be-"

She faltered, and Riftan frowned when he noticed the tears welling in her eyes.

"You look tired. Where is Ruth Serbel?" he asked.

"T-Taking a brief rest. He used a lot of mana healing Sir Ursuline." Rubbing her misty eyes. Maxi hastily got to her feet. "Shall we..s-step outside? I finally managed to get him to sleep with some sleeping draught...because he refused to stay in bed."

Riftan allowed himself to be led out of the room.

"How about you?" she asked. " Are you hurt anywhere?"

"Unscathed, as you can see," he said, stepping into the light and spreading his arms for a thorough inspection.

Maxi carefully swept her eyes over him, then sighed in relief. The sight warmed him deeply as if he had a stomach full of strong wine. Her fretting stirred both sympathy and tenderness in him.

He leaned in, pressing his forehead against her pale one, and wrapped his arms around her slender, slightly cold shoulders. The faint scent of herbs and firewood clung to her cloud-like curls.

"Today must have been hard," he said, gently patting her rigid back.

"Ruth did most of the work. I merely... assisted." Her voice was strained, and she rested her head on his shoulder as she spoke.

Riftan stroked her hair soothingly. "This will all be over tomorrow."

"I-If something like this happens again..."

"I promise you will never have to tend to my wounds."

Maxi lifted her head, her clear, silver eyes illuminated by the torch's golden glow.

All day long, he had been seething with rage, longing to tear someone to pieces. How was it possible that his anger instantly melted? He pressed his lips to her cheek, only to hear her choked voice again.

"I believe you. So you must...win with honor."

Riftan regarded her for a moment, then gave her a bitter smile. "You have my word."

***

The early morning rain left the stadium dotted with puddles of mud. Though it stopped by noon, the sky remained a blanket of gray clouds, and the air was thick with humidity. The summer monsoons had begun.

Riftan looked up at the overcast sky before surveying the packed stands. It seemed the dismal weather had not deterred the biggest crowd yet.

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