Chapter Twenty-Two: Puppet Master

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The night air felt cool against my skin. Thoughts about what is to come and what should I do circled through my mind as I gazed up on the starless night sky. The sound of approaching footsteps pulled me out of my trance.

Duke Zenos took a hold of my hand, "What are you thinking about so deeply?"

Uncertainty spread through me. I was anxious about what was to unfold at the ball, "It's nothing."

His grip on my hand grew tighter, "Are you sure?"

"Yes. Let's head out," I replied, taking comfort in the little amount of skinship we shared.

We were walking towards the carriage hand in hand when suddenly a shiver ran down my spine. I was being watched. It was a penetrating stare, as if they were looking into my very soul. I sensed no hostility or felt any threat yet an ominous feeling seeped into me. My eyes instantly shifted to face towards the direction of the watcher and was met with the sight of a dozen of Xavier Knights chatting amongst themselves.

Duke Zenos grew more and more concerned by the second, "What's wrong? You are behaving rather queer today?"

I am sure I was being watched...but there is no one there other than the knights.

"Why are there so many knights accompanying us today?" I asked.

"With the recent attempts to assassinate the Crown Prince, we should be careful. It is better to be safe than sorry," he replied.

I took a deep breath, "You are right. I am fine. I apologise for continuing to delay us."

A reassuring smile found its way upon his face, "Relax. You are not alone. You are allowed to share your insecurities with me or even lay them all on me. What is a business partner for if they can't even help you with your anxieties?"

I found myself returning his smile with a grateful nod as we stepped into the carriage and into the dark night,

During the ride, Duke Zenos's eyes were fixated on me.

"Is something wrong?" I asked.

His red eyes glowed in the darkness, "Your dress...I mean you...looking at you makes me feel like I am standing under the warmth of the sun, surrounded by a garden of golden roses."

I didn't know how to respond. He didn't call me pretty or beautiful yet his statement made me much happier than I would have been if he had uttered those commonly used words. It felt sincere.

We arrived at the Royal Palace to be welcomed with a joyous atmosphere. I thought the Xavier Mansion was fancy, but it was nothing compared to the Royal Palace. Five times the size of the Xavier Mansion, it was genuinely vast. It was sumptuous and enchanting, beautiful but impregnable.

Duke Zenos offered me his arm and I wrapped my hand around it without hesitation.

I am ready! Throw at me whatever you got!

It's been a minute or so since I had that thought but I already regret it...what is with this situation...

"We greet the Sun of the Empire, His Majesty the Emperor and Her Majesty the Empess," Duke Zenos and I voiced in unision whilst bowing.

I expected to meet the Emperor and Empress eventually but my heart wasn't prepared to meet them as soon as we entered the ball. Why did the Emperor request to meet as soon as we arrived? Is it just simple curiosity about his son's fiancé or something more?

"Look up and stand at ease," said a hoarse voice.

My eyes fell upon the Emperor. He was a handsome man with golden coloured hair akin to the sun and ocean blue eyes. Although he was father to three grown children, there was not a sign of old age on him. The sudden meeting with him brought unpleasant memories rushing back to me.

It was the day before my execution and I was held captive in the Royal dungeons. My glossy and lustrous crimson locks had turned dry and shaggy. My dress was in tatters, my skin pale and my face devoid of emotion. I heard the dungeon bars rattle which denoted the arrival of people.

A familiar voice filled the damp air, "You...you won't even look up to face me...now do you truly feel shame for your actions?"

I couldn't be bothered to look up. I was too busy wallowing in my own misery to comfort the man before me with words he won't even believe. To him I was a murderer who had taken his beloved son away from him and to me he was just another person who would ignore my pleas for help and demands for true justice.

The Emperor who was ever so mighty, who never showed his weaknesses was in tears as the grief of losing his son overwhelmed him, "What went wrong...? Why did you have to kil....kill my son? Why won't you say anything...? Why did you have to do this?!"

His questions were answered by my silence. I didn't look up at him nor respond. I could feel his patience running out.

He was making a desperate effort to regain his composure however tears continued to flow from his ocean blue eyes and his voice continued to break, against his will, "You-u should b-be grate-eful...I am sparin-ng you-u with-h a mere execu-ution-n..." he took a deep breath, "in consider-ration-n of...the hard work-k your-r father had-d done for-r me before-e he died..."

I flinched at the mention of my father. My emotionless face was now twisted in agony and affliction. Remembering him only evoked useless thoughts within me, like how things would have been different if he was still there.

A sickeningly sweet voice foreign to me shouted, "Your Majesty! Are you alright?!"

I finally faced upwards to await the sight of the weak and frail Emperor leaning on a tall woman dressed to the nines.

The Empress, who was supporting the Emperor whose knees were slowly giving in, didn't spare me as much as a glance and continued to speak, "Your Majesty, your health as of late hasn't been the best. I am afraid the recent events are exhausting you further. Please heed my advice and return to your chambers to rest."

The Emperor answered, "Yes...you are right. Let us return."

He threw me one last look mixed with hate and disgust to retreat to his chambers.

At that time, I had wondered that the Emperor's reply to the Empress was rather monotonous, almost like a puppet. However, I didn't ponder upon it much, as it was the least of my concerns before my execution. However, now this fact itself may be key to unlocking many secret doors and answering the biggest question: Who is the true puppet master?

I calmed my nerves and smiled brightly at the Emperor.

The Emperor smiled back, his wrinkles entering my line of sight as the first evidence of his old age. He was known to be a kind man who would only be cruel to those who have wronged him, "I see you have come with your fiancé, Zen. I believe this is the first time we are meeting since you have become a proper adult, Lady Eliza. How is your father faring?"

I bowed gracefully, "My father is faring well, all due to your benevolence, Your Majesty."

The next few minutes went by as Duke Zenos exchanged pleasantries with his father.

While they were engrossed in their conversation with one another, I quickly glanced towards the Empress. Her long, silver hair was tied and her green eyes glimmered like emeralds. She was a charming woman with both elegance and glamour. Her resemblance to Uken was uncanny because they both hailed from the Valerio Dukedom. However, what really caught my eye weren't these factors.

It was her expression...her eyes particularly.They held a look of contempt and abhorrence, as if they were scorning the object against them and her eyes were on Duke Zenos.

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