379 Chapter 140
"You praised my riding that day, saying how it had improved," Maxi said proudly as she reminisced about their trip to the lake.
Riftan cocked an eyebrow and pretended not to remember. "Surely not."
Maxi elbowed his stomach, and he broke into a show of pain, coughing while laughing simultaneously. She gave him a sideways look as though miffed, but a slow smile tugged at her lips. Her heart melted with joy whenever he was playful like this.
Caressing his strong arm draped over her waist, she said gently, "We rode along the lake... and you told me about your time as a mercenary, about your life after becoming a knight... I realized then that there was a whole new world I wasn't aware of."
After all those days she had waited for him at Croyso Castle, fearing divorce and trembling in fear of the inevitable lashing from her father, he had whisked her away to Anatol.
She could not help but think that was the day her life had truly begun. Over twenty years she had spent in Croyso Castle. Compared to the last few years as Riftan Calypse's wife, that time meant nothing.
If I hadn't met this man, I would never have come to know myself.
After silently gazing up at his face, she drew him down into a kiss. A sigh of contentment mixed with disgruntlement seeped from his lips.
"Sometimes, I wonder if you act like this to torment me."
"Y-You are the one who's odd," Maxi replied primly. "Most people aren't stirred by such gentle affection."
In an attempt to distract himself, Riftan grabbed a twig and thrust it into the crackling flames. The almost childish gesture tugged at her heartstrings. Chuckling softly, Maxi continued to plant kisses on his chin.
He let out a pained groan while giving her a mock glare. His attempt to appear intimidating was undone by the smile that curled his lips.
As Maxi observed her husband, a question arose in her mind. "Speaking of that day... what made you look at me like that?"
"What do you mean?"
"On the lake... you suddenly seemed troubled and insisted we return to the castle. I've always wondered... why you looked at me with such sadness."
Riftan fell silent, taken aback by her question. His gaze settled on the dancing flames as he contemplated his response.
"You were so beautiful in the snow, I thought I must be dreaming."
Blushing, Maxi shot him a glare. She suspected his answer was merely an evasion.
"Y-You don't have to answer if you don't want to."
"It's the truth," he replied, teasingly brushing her lips. "Your eyes as you gazed up at the sky - they were dazzling, sparkling like silver. It all felt like an illusion."
Seeing his eyes clouding with the weight of the memory, Maxi's face fell. She sensed there was more he was not revealing, but she refrained from prying further. Riftan was not one to openly share his feelings; he kept them locked away in his heart. She did, however, have a hunch that most of those cherished emotions were connected to her.
Abruptly, Riftan looked up at the sky. "The sun will be up soon."
Following his line of sight above the castle wall, Maxi saw that he was right. A faint light was rising from the east, dispelling the darkness enveloping the raven-black sky.
As the pale orange sunrise broke through the dark gray clouds, its rays bathed the castle and the city below in a soft glow. The snow, stirred by the wind, shimmered like silver while a gentle lavender hue seeped over the tents that filled the city.
A sigh of regret escaped Maxi as she realized another challenging day had begun.
At daybreak, the soldiers began to dismantle the camp. Maxi headed straight to the chapel to cast healing magic over those who could not move on their own. Fortunately, most of the wounded had recovered enough to endure the upcoming journey, leaving only a handful of people in need of her care.
After inspecting the last patient, she made her way to Ruth's tent.
"Everyone has been treated," she informed the sorcerer. "They are well enough to ride."
"That's good news. It means we can set out as soon as we obtain the so-called relic," Ruth said half-heartedly while scrawling something on a piece of parchment.
Maxi walked over to him to peek at what had him so engrossed. The yellowed parchment was filled with Elvish texts and complicated sketches, some too complex for her to decipher. Her eyes widened in surprise as she recognized the detailed anatomical chart of a monster.
"W-What in God's name are you drawing?"
"This is the anatomical report of the monster that snuck into camp," Ruth answered matter-of-factly, scribbling more notes on the parchment. "Since the creature was hacked to pieces, reconstructing its mana pathway was no easy task."
"Did the Temple Knights... give you permission to examine it?"
"Why would I require their permission? As a mage of the coalition army, it is my duty to learn as much as possible about our enemies."
Maxi peered at the intricate sketches. Some parts of the drawings were so complicated that she had no idea what they were supposed to depict.
"Were you able to learn anything?" she asked.
"Only that the specimen is able to store more mana than the average lizardman," Ruth grumbled, rolling up the parchment and tucking it in his clothes. "It would have been much more helpful if the Temple Knights had captured the monster alive instead of hacking it into three pieces. We lost a golden opportunity to gather valuable information."
Maxi refrained from mentioning that she could have been hacked in two if Kuhael Leon had not killed the monster. But, given her penchant for attracting trouble, she did not want to add to her reputation. She shrugged and tried to change the subject.
"More importantly... we should eat before the knights finish all the food."
"Ah, those men are certainly capable of that," Ruth replied with a scowl, then walked out of the tent.
Maxi followed him, taking in the bustling scene. Tents had been swiftly dismantled, and hundreds of horses were already saddled. Soldiers efficiently loaded the army's belongings onto wagons while others stood in the line before the castle gate, undergoing inspection by the clerics. 𝘭𝘪𝑏𝑟ℯ𝒶𝑑.𝘤𝑜𝘮
She quickly realized they were searching for possible monsters disguised as humans. The divine magic infused into each soldier revealed whether or not they were fully human.
It may be cumbersome, but no other method is more reliable.
While attempting to count the number of soldiers waiting in line, Maxi's attention was drawn to an unfamiliar four-wheeled carriage stationed at the entrance of the inner castle. She speculated that it must be the vehicle designated to carry the sacred relic they sought.
However, the solemn expressions of the Temple Knights guarding the carriage dissuaded Maxi from getting too close. Catching a glimpse of the holy relic was an unlikely prospect. With a resigned sigh, she redirected her steps to where the Remdragon Knights were gathered.
Before long, the coalition army finished its preparations and set off eastward. The Remdragon Knights led the charge, followed by the Knights of Phil Aaron and the Temple Knights, who flanked the carriage carrying the Chalice of Purification. Bringing up the rear was the Wedonian army.
Their march proceeded smoothly. The soldiers followed Riftan's lead in perfect formation, allowing them to traverse the border between Osiriya and Wedon before sundown. Finally, they arrived at the Duchy of Croyso.
Maxi took in the vast forest, abundant with trees, and the terraced rice fields that cascaded downhill like a grand staircase. The sight that greeted her was nothing short of shocking. Though she had only seen her father's lands twice - once when Riftan had taken her to Anatol and once when she returned to Croyso Castle from Drachium - she vividly remembered the duchy's prosperity. Back then, prime hunting grounds, golden granaries, and expansive pastures teeming with horses and sheep stretched as far as the eye could see.
All she saw now was a land long neglected, with a small village mostly deserted by its inhabitants. Confusion rose on Maxi's face as she looked at the empty pastures. While she knew many estates had suffered during the long winter, she had not anticipated the Duchy of Croyso to be in such dire straits. After all, it was renowned for having the most fertile lands in all the Seven Kingdoms.
Emaciated and dressed in rags, the people along the road were a stark contrast to her memories. The sight stirred a mix of emotions within her.
While a part of her felt relieved to see her father's powers weakened, meaning he was no longer a threat to her or Riftan, she could not bear to witness these people's suffering.
I'm sure only the outskirts of the duchy are so badly affected.
Yet, as she clutched her reins and stared at a long-abandoned watermill, she could not shake her disconcertment. She clung to the hope that not all of the hundreds of villages within her father's fief were in similar circumstances.
By evening, they arrived at a walled town of considerable size, and it quickly became apparent that even the commercial districts were in a state of desperation.
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