Chapter Eighteen: Agony and Anguish

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"Read the contents," Duke Zenos said, handing me a piece of paper.

As I scanned through the almost illegible handwritten contract, I was greeted by numerous clauses.

                                                                          < CONTRACT >

This contract is entered into by and between Duke Zenos Ciel Xavier (First Party) and Lady Eliza Arielle Rosario (Second Party).

The specific terms of the contract are as follows:

Clause 1: The contract meaning the marriage can be dissolved at any time by either of the two parties involved. This means a divorce can be issued as long as one of the parties is in demand of it.

Clause 2: Duke Zenos Ciel Xavier (First Party) will respect the decisions taken by Lady Eliza Arielle Rosario (Second Party) and vice versa. An equal standing will be maintained between the two parties.

Clause 3: The contract is purely based on benefiting and fulfilling the interests of both the parties involved in it. The marriage between both the parties will be equivalent to a business deal.

Clause 4: The contract must be kept confidential. Under no circumstances can either of the parties divulge information about the contract to a third party.

The third clause...I wonder why I am so bothered by it.

Duke Zenos offered as I looked up to meet his blood red eyes, "You may change or add any other clauses as you see fit."

"Ah no, it's okay. This contract fits all of my requirements. Let us proceed with this," I said, reaching out for a quill.

"Glad to know," Duke Zenos replied as I signed the contract.

"Well then, My Duke-" I uttered only to get cut off by Duke Zenos, "Call me Zen."

"Pardon?" I asked, startled.

"My family members call me that and we will soon become family," Duke Zenos stated.

Even if your family members call you Zen, it is too awkward for me to call a Duke with his nickname all of a sudden.

Hesitantly, I responded, "I see...I shall call you that, Duke Zenos."

"Zen. Also talk to me informally, we will soon be family," Duke Zenos corrected me.

Oh god, why does he keep on mentioning the word 'family'? News about the engagement between Duke Zenos and I has been spreading like wildfire thanks to all the people I have planted to gossip about it in the high society. I had to take these measures to break off my ties with Uken for good. However, we have yet to hold a proper ceremony.

"I aplog...I mean I am sorry. I will be more careful from now on," I voiced, quickly shifting from formal speech to informal.

"You don't need to apologise. Take your time to get used to the changes. Don't you have a nickname which your family affectionately refers to you by?" Duke Zenos questioned, curiously.

My nickname...I can already hear my father shouting in his usual, annoyingly sweet voice, "Eliiiiiiiiiiii."

"I do have one. It's Eli," I replied, trying hard to keep a straight face as my father's voice reverberated through my mind.

"Hmm...then from now on I will call you Eli," Duke Zenos announced.

I felt my cheeks grow warmer as Duke Zenos continued, "Eli, are you perhaps ill? Your cheeks are red. Do you have a fever?"

"No-o I am-m fi-nne" I answered, my cheeks flushed red.

"Your complexion seems to say otherwise. It would be better for you to return to your estate for the day," Duke Zenos suggested, his expression full of concern for me.

"Already...I wanted to stay a little longer," I blurted out.

Wait...did I say that out loud?

"Oh my, you are rather bold, Eli," Duke Zenos voiced, his lips curling into a smirk.

"Ah...no-o lik-e what-t I-I mean-nt was-s...I should return to my estate! May the Spirits bless you!" I shouted, my cheeks turning redder and warmer by the second.

As I sprinted towards the door, Duke Zenos said whilst chuckling, "Take Cesar with you. From now on, he will be your personal guard. Cesar, protect her properly."

Cesar, once again, appeared out of thin air. He nodded in response to Duke Zenos's command.

Wait, even Cesar was here!? This is so embarrassing...

"Thank you for your benevolence," I whispered and swiftly exited the room.

Rey who awaited me, outside the parlour, said, "Let me escort you to the carriage."

I nodded, reluctant to raise my head. I felt a burning sensation course through my body. Keeping my head down, I continued to march forward.

That was super embarrassing. First, I started laughing in front of him with no context whatsoever and now this...I am building quite a reputation for myself in front of my future husband. Wait, why am I referring to him as my husband already? It's all Duke Zenos's fault that I am getting influenced...

I was dragged back to reality as Rey shouted, "Lady Eliza!"

I had been so consumed by my thoughts, I didn't notice that I had almost bumped into someone.

"I apologise. I was in a daze," I said to the person I had almost knocked into, as I finally raised my head, to face him.

The young boy in front of me was sporting the same Xavier Knights' uniform as Cesar. He looked about my age and had brown hair with a pair of vivid golden-brown eyes. His hands were covered with callouses and multiple scars peeked through his tattered uniform. As I locked my amber eyes with his golden-brown ones, it felt like the flow of time had stopped. Even if I had mustered up all the strength within me, I would not have been able to look away. I stood there, breathless and bedazzled. However, my attention soon shifted from his eyes to the expression he bore on his face. He appeared to be in anguish, as if he were being tormented by a thousand needles, jammed through his skin. My heart ached at the sight of his suffering. There was a gut-churning tension between us, as a throbbing pain manifested in my head. He felt awfully familiar yet I did not know who he was.

Who is he? Why am I on an emotional roller coaster upon laying my eyes on him?

Arousing me from my thoughts, the young boy hastily replied, "It is okay. Then I shall now take my leave," and walked past us, leaving no traces behind.

"Lady Eliza, I apologise sincerely for raising my voice," Rey said.

"Don't fret it. It's not your fault. I was the one who was spaced out. Who is that young boy I just bumped into?" I questioned, uneasily.

"He is part of the Xavier Knighthood. His name is Arius. Although he is quite young, I can assure you he is one of the strongest knights in the Empire," Rey bragged.

"I see. The Xavier Estate sure is filled with capable people," I responded with a slight smile.

I probably am thinking too much into it. How will I know a knight from the Xavier Estate? I am just too exhausted and embarrassed from today's events. I should head home and rest.

That night, as I closed my eyes, Arius's expression full of agony and pain, was all I could think about.

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