Under the Oak Tree

Chapter 393 - 154
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393 Chapter 154

"That, I cannot say for certain," Ruth muttered. "The duke we know would never tarnish the Croyso name by engaging in an act of revenge. Especially not one that would be viewed as disgraceful. He may be a terrible despot of man, but he's not a fool willing to jeopardize his authority by openingly defying the Council's decision."

Ruth paused and walked to the corner of the infirmary, where there was a cauldron simmering on the brazier. "But a dying man becomes indifferent to the future," he continued, stirring the cauldron's contents with a ladle. "His family's prestige, even his own status, might mean little to him now. Who knows if he is even thinking rationally with revenge on his mind."

Maxi chewed her lip as she pondered Ruth's words. Her father was indeed known for being fiercely protective of his reputation and authority. Publicly, he had always played the part of a devoted parent, all the while tormenting his daughter in private. And when he had thrown her a grand wedding, in reality, he had been sending her betrothed off to the Dragon Campaign in his stead.

But the man Ruth described now seemed recklessly intent on belittling her husband. He seemed to pay little heed to public criticism or damage to his reputation. Maxi was certain that was not something her shrewd, calculating father would have considered before.

Is he so blinded by his hatred for Riftan?

Indignation surged within her as she imagined her father lying on his deathbed. The man had devoted his whole life to maintaining his power and territory, and yet, here he was, squandering possibly his last moments on petty revenge.

What a vain and meaningless existence. In her mind, her father had always loomed as a frightening, authoritative figure. Now, he seemed reduced to a pitiable old man. One consumed by hatred, who had neither given nor received love.

A sudden urge seized Maxi. She wanted to see the Duke of Croyso in all his feebleness, to look into his eyes and tell him that only a sad, lonely death awaited him.

He could have chosen a different life.

Instead of buying himself a wife, he could have married for love. And had he become a father who cherished his children, he would have been surrounded by family instead of dying alone.

He could have shown respect and gratitude to the young, talented knight who had been in his employ.

Riftan had been nothing but a disposable pawn to him. The powerful knight would have become a steadfast ally instead of an enemy haunting his nights.

Now, all he had left was a crumbling empire and two daughters who despised him. Was he happy with the path he had walked?

These were the thoughts spiraling in Maxi's mind when Ruth's voice pulled her back to the present.

"You needn't concern yourself too much, my lady. Sir Riftan has already contacted the eastern merchant guild should the duke withhold the supplies. And as a last resort, we can always fund the army ourselves."

Ruth seemed to think her silence stemmed from worry. Instead of correcting him, she shook her head, a frown creasing her brow. "Anatol has no obligation to finance this. The Council is responsible for supplying the army, and they've delegated that duty to the Duke of Croyso. That's why the supplies must come from him, no matter what."

"Do you have a plan in mind?" Ruth asked, peering into a ladleful of tonic to gauge its readiness.

When he turned to wait for her reply, she answered hesitantly, "What if...I were to write to the duchy's vassals?"

"It would certainly be better than not writing at all," Ruth said flatly. He set the cauldron on the floor and began refilling tonic vials. "But letters alone won't suffice. Despite his ill health, your father is still lord of this land, while you are merely a potential heir. Your ladyship would need something more persuasive to compel those obstinate eastern nobles to defy him."

Maxi stared thoughtfully at the steaming cauldron. "I should speak with Sir Derek."

"And what would you say to him?" Ruth asked, looking equal parts concerned and curious.

"I shall try to win him over first. His army is large, which means he is influential. If I can get him to act as my intermediary...that should give me more saway over the eastern nobles."

Ruth appeared skeptical, but he relented with a shrug, "It is worth a try."

"Thank you for the vote of confidence." Maxi retorted.

Turning on her heel, she left the infirmary. Her mind raced as she headed toward the square filled with rows of military barracks. Should she brandish the formidable reputation of the Remdragon Knights to compel obedience?

It would be effective, perhaps, but it could also breed resentment. Ideally, she wanted the vassals to join the coalition willingly. Yet how could she convince a group of haughty, conservative nobles?

After much consideration, Maxi sought out the Anatolian knights. She had wanted to consult Riftan first, but he was deep in a strategy meeting at the common barracks. Peering into the tent, she saw him deliberating with Richard Breston, Kuahel Leon, and the commander of the Royal Knights of Wedon.

She turned away when she noticed that Sir Derek was not among them. He is likely in the duchy's encampment. While she deliberated her next move, her eyes fell on Hebaron, who was sharpening his sword by a campfire.

"Sir Hebaron," she said, approaching him. "Might I borrow you for a moment?"

The knight looked up in surprise. "What can I do for you, my lady?"

"I need to speak with Sir Derek..and require an escort."

A momentary confusion crossed Hebaron's face before it settled into a slight frown. "Sir Derek, one of the duke's men? What exactly do you intend to discuss with him?"

"I wish to speak with him about the supplies," Maxi replied, instilling her voice with more confidence than she felt. Before Hebaron could voice any objections, she quickly added, "If you're too busy, you could send someone else. But I must go now."

Hebaron rose swiftly, sheathing his sword. "Allow me to accompany you."

His smile was that of a mischievous boy who had come across something interesting.

"What perfect timing," he said. "I was getting rather bored. Shall we?"

Wasting no time, Maxi led the way toward the duchy's barracks. As the Croyso banner drew nearer her palms began to grow damp. Could she negotiate skillfully with her father's vassals?

I have nothing to lose.

Pausing before the opulent, crimson barracks, she tried to bolster her nerves.

"Inform Sir Derek that Lady Maximilian Calypse wishes to speak with him," she commanded the dozing squire guarding the entrance.

The young man startled away at her deliberately pompous tone, righting the drooping spear in his hands. He rushed into the tent, and moments later, an invitation to enter called out from within.

Holding her head high, Maxi stepped inside.

"Sir Derek," she said, putting on the airs of a haughty noblewoman, "I apologize for my unannounced visit. I hope I have not disturbed your rest."

"Not at all, my lady. It is always an honor to receive such a distinguished guest," the knight replied politely. He offered her a seat cushioned with fox fur. "Please."

"Thank you," Maxi said primly. She gracefully lowered herself into the chair.

Over her shoulder, she caught Hebaron stifling a chuckle. He seemed to find her acting highly entertaining. She gave a light cough. A fleeting regret crossed her mind - perhaps bringing him along had not been the wisest decision.

"I will not take up much of your time," assured Maxi.

Sir Derek twirled his meticulously groomed mustache. "A pity."

He was being polite, but she could tell he did not particularly hold her in high regard.

After wordlessly studying her face as if trying to ascertain her intentions, the knight picked up a goblet from the table. "Now then, may I ask the reason for your visit?"

Maxi felt her confidence wane at his relaxed manner, but she pressed on. "I have come to ask the duchy's vassals to actively support the coalition army."

Though she knew the situation required diplomacy, she was not accustomed to the niceties of the aristocratic conversation. She decided to be as candid as possible.

"The Council of the Seven Kingdoms formed this army and deployed us here, and the House of Croyso is obligated to provide us with supplies. To date, we have been met with rather lackluster hospitality, and I am unwilling to tolerate it any further."

Maxi felt her confidence growing as the words came out as eloquently as she had imagined. She felt more and more like a refined noblewoman as she spoke. Raising her chin, she enunciated each word.

"Given the lukewarm welcome we have received, I have reason to doubt the supplies will arrive in a timely manner. So I urge you, Sir Derek - send word to the eastern nobles to dispatch immediate and adequate supplies to Midna."

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