Under the Oak Tree - Chapter 219 - Side Story Chapter 25
Had he truly thought everything would be frozen in time, awaiting his return? He was an arrogant fool if he harbored even an inkling of such hope. Rubbing his throbbing temples, Riftan quickened his pace. All he wanted was to head straight to his room, throw himself in bed, and not move for the next two days.
When he reached the castle, all desire to rest evaporated. He was not in the mood to deal with the commander, who would no doubt barge in to pester him, nor did he want to interact with the other knights. Though he trusted them, he was loath to let anyone see him vulnerable.
Riftan circled the garden and strolled down a secluded forest path. It was a shortcut he had often lugged sacks of charcoal along as a boy. As he followed the dirt trail, he felt his migraine slowly subsiding.
Intending to rest a while, he leaned against a tree trunk before realizing where he was. He stiffened, and a sigh escaped him as he spotted the light gray building through the dense foliage. He could not believe he had unwittingly walked here.
He trudged out of the forest like a weary traveler, his shoulders slumped over. The garden he had dreamed of countless times grew closer, but it looked nothing like the one in his visions.
Riftan furrowed his brows at the desolate scene before him. The once vibrant flower beds were overrun with dried weeds, and the surrounding area was oddly quiet.
Does she not live here anymore?
He plucked a withered flower and crushed it between his fingers. The annex had fallen into disrepair after the girl moved to the main castle. Uncontrollable laughter burst out of him, and he felt hopelessly defeated. Misery had blackened even this idyllic memory.
He stood rubbing his neck for a moment. Just as he was about to head back, muffled laughter came through the trees, and he looked over at the empty garden. A chill wind bit into him as he tried to track the sound. As soon as he heard rustling nearby, he sprang into action.
Riftan circled the annex and found Maximilian Croyso crouched on the ground, playing with a large cat. He froze and swept his gaze over her. Her chestnut dress was plain compared to her outfit at the banquet. Her hair, which had been meticulously styled, hung loose and disheveled around her shoulders. A tinge of red colored her cheeks on her otherwise pale face.
Something in his chest twisted painfully. She was the spitting image of his illusion.
He spun away, determined not to fall prey to her grip again, when a soft-spoken stutter made him freeze.
“D-Do you… like me?”
As if compelled by a cosmic force, Riftan’s gaze snapped to the girl. She was talking to the cat purring at her feet, her expression grave. What should have been a comical scene did not make him want to laugh at all.
The cat stretched and rubbed its head on her skirt as if to answer her question. The girl smiled. Like a child playing with a doll, she gently picked it up and whispered to it.
“Th-Then… w-will you… stay with me?”
The startling sadness in her voice made Riftan’s heart clench, and he rubbed at the spot on his ribs. Her loneliness was palpable even at a distance. At that moment, he felt a deep connection with her. He gazed sadly at the vulnerability in her face before fleeing the garden.
Looking higher will only bring misfortune.
His stepfather’s voice echoed in his ears. Why had he forgotten? He should never have come back. It would have been better to remain oblivious to her loneliness.
His hands shaking, Riftan wiped his mouth. She had infiltrated the innermost corners of his heart. Knowing how easily he could fall under her spell again, he should have done everything in his power to avoid her.
Before he had lost the ability to love anyone — before his shell had hardened — she had already taken root deep in his heart. Yet, his only concern had been trying to prevent this small paradise from shattering.
Inexplicable anger flooded him, and he kicked the ground. What did it matter if she was lonely? She lived in an opulent castle under the protection of her wealthy father. He would never be able to understand someone in her station. Had he already forgotten how she had looked at him? It was time to stop dwelling on childhood memories.
He fled the annex as though that would drive out the turmoil churning in his heart.
From that point on, Riftan avoided the areas behind the main castle, and he only attended the banquets when necessary. Like a thorn stuck beneath his nail, however, Maximilian Croyso’s presence was a constant affliction.
It came to a point where he was able to locate her in the vast castle with little effort. He could pick up her footsteps and soft voice from a distance, and he even developed a knack for immediately grasping the meaning of her stuttered words. It was as though his senses existed solely for her. Just a glimpse from afar was enough to set his nerves on edge. Though he knew his behavior was excessive, he felt completely helpless against this unfamiliar emotion.
He did not remember being this fixated as a boy. Back then, the thought of her would fill him with tender affection, and her smile would warm his heart. His emotions now were more intense, even unpleasant. It was not contentment so much as a shriveling of his insides, accompanied by a strange, parched feeling.
On one of the nights of the celebration, he even marched to the hall in full banquet attire intending to talk to her. As usual, she only made a brief appearance before excusing herself. Watching her leave after having spent an hour hovering in front of the mirror, Riftan felt like a fool.
He hid his disappointment as he turned to Hebaron and said nonchalantly, “Do I look frightening to you?”
Hebaron had been glugging back the duke’s premium wine as though it were water. He paused and stared wide-eyed at Riftan before his face lit up with amusement.
“Did you make some faint-hearted lady swoon?”
Riftan managed to maintain his emotionless facade. He would rather die than admit such a thing had indeed nearly happened.
Pushing the image of the girl’s terrified face from his mind, Riftan said blandly, “The commander keeps hounding me about being more affable.”
Hebaron looked Riftan up and down, a grin plastered across his face.”Is that why you’ve been dolling yourself up these days?”
“Do you have a death wish?” Riftan said, touching the hilt of his sword.
Hebaron put on an exaggerated look of terror and hunched his hulking shoulders. “Your appearance is not the problem — it’s your menacing aura. You can’t take a joke, you never smile, and you’re difficult to talk to. A constant, sunny smile is what giants like us need so as not to scare people away. How could you expect anyone to brave that perpetual scowl of yours?”
Conceding that the knight had a point, Riftan clamped his mouth shut. Hebaron took it as an opportunity to continue reproaching him.
“You have a gloomy air. Honestly, the silent staring makes my blood run cold sometimes. Think about it. We are in the middle of a banquet, yet you look as if you’re standing on a battlefield. Who would be courageous enough to approach you? You scare off a good number of the knights, so it’s no surprise these noble ladies are fainting left and right.”
If Hebaron was correct, it meant that, unless someone took over Riftan’s body, there was no way he could do anything about the girl’s fear.
For once, he envied the bear-like knight’s brazenness. Even though Hebaron was taller and heavier than him, the man seemed able to fit in with any group he wanted. Riftan tried to hide his bitterness as he took a swig of wine.
A pleased expression settled on Hebaron’s face. “Still, I’m surprised such a thing troubles you so much. Have you finally accepted the succession plans?”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Riftan said curtly, getting up from his seat.
Hebaron furrowed his bushy brows as Riftan went to leave. “Most of our current members joined because of their admiration for you. Just look at Ricaydo. He even refused a position with the royal knights for us. Everyone already sees you as the commander, so when will you stop being so preoccupied with something as inconsequential as pedigree?”
“It’s not that simple.”
Riftan shot the knight a menacing glare. Hebaron Nirtha was a progeny of a fallen noble family and bore the characteristics of the people of the Western Continent. Though they were both former mercenaries, Hebaron would always be held in higher regard than someone from the bottom of the ladder. It galled Riftan to hear him breeze over the importance of pedigree in the world they lived in.
“Many of the nobles in Wedon are conservative,” Riftan said. “Why do something that would put our order at a disadvantage?”
Hebaron snorted. “Why should we care what the nobles think? We’re already renegades in their eyes. We need only put our rules first.”
Disgusted by the knight’s simplistic logic, Riftan stalked out of the crowded banquet hall. Now was not the time to be walking on eggshells around a woman not even half his size. What a ridiculous thing to be doing when there were far more pressing issues. He untied the adornment around his neck and ruffled his neatly groomed hair.
There was a week left of this blasted victory celebration. Once he left the castle, he would never again do anything as senseless as dress up like a jester for a woman’s attention. After gazing up at the gloomy sky, Riftan made his way to his room.