Under the Oak Tree

Chapter 437 - 198
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437 Chapter 198

Gripping his goblet tightly, Riftan studied Sejuleu Aren's green eyes. "Why are you telling me this?"

Sejuleu furrowed his brow, seemingly choosing his words carefully.

Leaning back, Riftan asked in a low voice, "Is it war you want, Aren?"

"I am a knight," Sejuleu replied with a hearty laugh. "I have lived and breathed battle from the day I was knighted. But I am also an optimist. Though I'm more than happy to punish rebels or drive out invaders, I have no fondness for invading other people's lands."

He grinned as if making a light jest. To anyone watching, their conversations would appear inconsequential.

Raising a goblet to his lips, Sejuleu continued, "I don't plan to join the opposition just to provoke war. You can be at ease about that."

"Then why mention such nonsense?"

Sejuleu lowered his goblet with a sigh. "Because, like it or not, war is coming. I commend your efforts in maintaining the armistice, but you know as well as I that it's a temporary fix at best. Heimdall is a man to be reckoned with. His immediate concern may be unifying his kingdom, but that won't distract him for long. Soon, he will bring the Confederacy to heel and reignite war. And need I mention the tensions between Wedon and Dristan? You may have patched things up for now, but long-standing resentments cannot be so easily forgotten. I'm sure you understand that better than anyone.”

Riftan scowled as he recalled the tedious years he had spent fighting on the border between Dristan and Wedon. He had slain countless Dristanians forced into combat for survival. There was no doubt that many considered him their sworn enemy.

Not wanting to dwell on it, Riftan said curtly, "Get to the point."

"We need to be ready," Sejuleu said, folding his arms. "Balto and Rex still maintain a close alliance, and there is a high chance that Dristan will join Arex to keep Wedon in check. That wouldn't be so troubling if we had Sykan to keep Balto in check, but...they cannot afford to provoke Balto when they already have their hands full with the eastern outlanders. Ultimately, Osiriya, Livadon, and Wedon must unite against the northern kingdoms."

He paused as a servant refilled their goblets, then dismissed him with a dignified wave. When the room's noise resumed, he leaned in to add, "We must bolster our strength, too. I want you to be the central figure of the western forces."

Riftan's eyes narrowed. Sejuleu Aren's demeanor was nonchalant to the point of frivolity, yet his eyes betrayed his earnestness. Riftan recognized the man's respect for him, but managing Anatol was burdensome enough.

Tapping the table, he said decisively, "I must decline. I have no desire to lead such a grand endeavor. I agree with you that the western kingdoms must strengthen their alliance, but that is all."

"Are you saying you are content being King Reuben's puppet?" Sejuleu asked after a moment.

"I see no wrong in cooperating with my liege when our thoughts align," Riftan replied flatly. "A stronger military alliance between Livadon, Osiriya, and Wedon would only push Balto, Arex, and Dristan closer together. Hostilities would grow, and I have no intention of doing anything to disrupt the fragile balance. In fact, I want it to last for as long as possible."

Sejuleu looked baffled. "Do you not see how flawed the current order is? The peace among the Seven Kingdoms is bound to end."

"The timing of that is anyone's guess," Riftan countered calmly. "I don't expect everlasting peace. I don't believe such a thing exists. Even the empire founded by Wigrew and Darian and his twelve knights split into seven. Peace is either long or short, never permanent."

Riftan's gaze swept the table, observing the attendees. Dressed in silk, fur, gold, and jewels, they were like beasts in disguise, each cautiously eyeing the other. He knew that if these predators sensed any prey, none would hesitate to bare their teeth.

There was no guarantee that an era of true peace would dawn after a bloody war. It could just as well lead to a century of endless conflict. The entire realm might be decimated while its seven monarchs and hundreds of feudal lords tussle to claim more land for themselves.

Even the things he cherished could be lost in the flames of turmoil.

"A flawed order is better than total chaos," Riftan said woodenly. "I intend to do everything in my power to preserve this peace. That way..”

This world would not be blighted by war and bloodshed while his most beloved walked the earth.

Swallowing back the rest of his words, Riftan turned to face Sejuleu. The man must not have expected a refusal, for he looked uncharacteristically at a loss for words. He regarded Riftan with a frown before shrugging.

"If that is your wish, I cannot force you." The knight smiled and placed a hand on Riftan's shoulder. "I am eager to see how long you can walk this tightrope."

As the Livadonian commander strolled away, Riftan's gaze lingered on his retreating figure until he felt a hostile stare. Looking forward, he spotted Richard Breston observing him from a distance. He wondered if Breston, with his beast-like intuition, had sensed something suspicious.

Breston tore his piercing gaze away to whisper into the ear of the nobleman beside him. Though he feigned indifference, Riftan noticed the northerner's eyes alight with sinister intent.

He understood why Sejuleu Aren was so anxious. The northerners had not abandoned their ambitions; they were simply biding their time. With a cold glint in his eyes, Riftan stabbed his knife into the large piece of meat in front of him. What must he do to break their resolve once and for all? He pondered over strategies to crush Breston under his heel when he felt a familiar presence behind him.

Turning, he saw Elliot Charon cutting across the banquet hall, his face tense. Struck with an ominous feeling, Riftan rose from his seat.

"What is it?"

"Commander, her ladyship was almost abducted while on an outing in the city today."

Riftan instantly felt his blood run cold.

"Rovar acted swiftly, so her ladyship came to no harm," Elliot quickly added, "but we thought it best to inform you."

"Who targeted my wife?" Riftan asked, his scrutinizing gaze scanning the hall.

"I was informed it was a dragonian hiding within the basilica."

Riftan's eyes flew to the pope seated at the head of the long table. He knew the Temple Knights had been actively working in secret, but the revelation that they were rooting out hidden monsters among them, and their silence on the matter, filled him with rage. Gritting his teeth, he turned away.

"Inform the king I have excused myself."

As soon as Elliot obediently nodded, Riftan strode out of the bright banquet hall, ignoring the curious glances of the other guests. He quickly made his way to his designated room on the third floor.

Entering the dimly lit bedchamber, he noticed a small figure sleeping on the bed. Approaching gently, he saw his wife in peaceful slumber. Her serene face instantly eased his tension. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he breathed a weary sigh.

"You delight in scaring me, don't you?"

It riled him to see her sleeping so soundly after a near abduction. He glared at her, annoyed by how adorably she slept. Was she that oblivious to the danger she had been in? Without the knights, something truly terrible might have happened.

Halting his grim imagination, Riftan roughly scrubbed his face in his hands. He could not help but resent her for being so unaware of his feelings. Reaching out, he gingerly pinched her soft cheek.

Mumbling in her sleep, his wife swatted at his hand as if brushing off a fly, then settled back into slumber. Her peacefulness quickly soothed his rising anger.

Thinking back to when she was a child, he gave a silent chuckle. Just as heedless to danger as ever.

He suddenly recalled the time he had considered keeping his distance from her for her safety. A foolish idea, considering he had long known a certain truth - that the only way to ensure this fearless woman's safety was to keep an eye on her at all times.

If he wanted to protect her from all possible dangers, he could never let her out of his sight. She would lead a life of peace and tranquility. That was his sole purpose for existing.

After a long while spent watching her sleep, Riftan rose to snuff out the candle on the windowsill.

***

As Maxi expected, her guards were immediately doubled. She held back a sigh as she glanced at the group of knights trailing her. Although their presence was irksome, she could hardly complain after the recent scare.

Struggling to suppress her irritation, she spoke with forced calmness. "It is just a walk in the courtyard. One guard should suffice."

"You seem to underestimate your knack for attracting danger, my lady," Ursuline said curtly. "We must be cautious even within the basilica."

Maxi could do nothing but respond with a resentful glare.

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