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Never look back, unless you're planning to go that way.

-H.D. Thoreau


My father was coming back.

I sank into my red high-backed chair and read the letter again. He seemed to want to have dinner with me on the morrow when he returned home from Silvia. I frowned and leaned forward on the mahogany desk, resting my chin on my palm. The letter was short but to the point, much like the man himself, and ordered that I make arrangements to dine in the main dinning hall once he returns.

I couldn't even remember the last time I'd had dinner with him, just the two of us. Usually, he acted as if I didn't exist, and that usually worked quite well for me. He only called upon me when he wanted me to make some special acquaintance, or rebuke me for acting in an undignified manner.

I tried to recall if I had done something that could have warranted such a visit. Hmm, let's see, I fell asleep during political science again, but that was hardly anything new, and I doubt Mr. Hector even noticed, as the man was known to drone on and on about such things regardless of the fact that the victims – excuse me, students – had long been asleep.

I went through all the parties I'd been to recently, wondering if I had somehow sullied my father's name, but they were all quite drab, the most exciting thing that had happened all week was that the Betrik family had gone bankrupt – which was hardly surprising, considering how fond of the gaming hells Sir Betrik was - and that a new upstart had arrived from Parga.

Father would hardly be bothered by something like that.

Lord Roland Hartsworth was, after all, a man whose importance in the city of Asarel was, perhaps, above his significant titles; in fact most would say he is even more influential than the President himself. Corul was the only island where those from Marook could rest for supplies and go west to the lands of Rakner. Asarel was the main port on the eastern side and hence, saw quite a bit of traffic. Harleum was the western port, but while it was boisterous, it was smaller than Asarel.

My father had few vices, and money was never something I had to worry about, unlike some other families. My education was spotless, as I was the sole heir of my father's considerable wealth. I was taught a variety of classes including riding, fencing, politics, history and others that were usually reserved for the male members of the family. I knew my place in the world and what was expected of me.

Back to the matter at hand – this letter was perplexing. I didn't know why, but it made me uneasy. Whatever he wanted to discuss, I doubt it would be pleasant.


My father was already seated when I entered. I sat on the opposite end of the dining table with father. He was just as I remembered him - calm and indifferent. His black hair had a few more streaks of grey in it but he still looked as imposing and dignified as ever. His eyes were the same hard green with a sharpness in them that had never overlooked any fault. Those eyes were the reason we were doing so well – the man was a genius when it came to understanding trade trends. Almost single-handedly, he turned our small trading business into a powerhouse of trade.

I have always respected the man, even if I didn't always like him. Letting his only daughter take over the family, while legal, was hardly ever done. He had never treated me like I was lacking because of my gender, like many would have, and he never compromised on my education. For that privilege, I made sure that no one could ever criticize him through me and that once I did take over my responsibilities, I'd do even better than he did.

We said our pleasantries, and I sat down in the chair on his right. The room was large enough to fit a crowd of fifty comfortably and the dining table at its center was long as long enough to fit twenty. As it was rarely used, the air was slightly musty, but all the silver was meticulously polished and the room itself was spotless. Mary, our head housemaid was very efficient.

So why was it that I felt a sudden chill?

I drank red wine to calm my nerves somewhat. We barely spoke as the meal passed. Rupert, Mary's husband, had done a marvelous job of preparing dinner – roast beef with potatoes and beans, along with various assortments of cheese and fruits, but I barely tasted any of it.

Something was wrong, though I couldn't put my finger on it. My suspicions were steadily growing worse every minute that I couldn't think of a reason why.

Frank as always, father wasted no time after his meal and went straight into the heart of the matter immediately, "Areena, as you are of marriageable age now, I think it is time you find yourself a suitable husband."

That was such an abrupt topic, that I chocked on a bit of my steak for a few moments and had to wash it down with water. I brought my tablecloth to the corner of my mouth and wiped it, to bring myself closer to some semblance of dignity.

I had known this day was approaching for some time now. Love marriages were for commoners, not nobility. However, I did think I was going to actually take part in the business before that.

"Who am I to wed?" I asked in a measured tone after I got a hold of myself.

He drank a bit of wine and wiped the ends of his mouth with a pristine white napkin, and said, "There are many offers. It seems that the Duke of Harleum has taken quite an interest in you, but there is still some time left before your seventeenth birthday. The final decision will be taken then."

I went pale at the mention of the Duke. The rumors about his under-handed deeds and power were widespread and horrendous. He had been accused of everything from slavery to torture. There is nothing that goes beyond his code of ethics – mainly because he has none.

"I will not marry that monster. Father, please. You know the rumors surrounding him. How could you want me to marry into that?" I asked him, distraught.

"He is wealthy and has a grand title. This will cement my ties to him and be mutually beneficial. However, the final decision will be made at your party," he said sipping his wine.

"Nothing good could come from such a union. That man is the Devil incarnate! You, yourself, have spoken against him on several occasions, and public opinion on him is disastrous. It could ruin our reputation." I said, trying to appeal to his business sense.

"And yet, he is always invited to every gathering that one should be at. You are hardly the one to put much substance into rumors," he said, sliding his glance to me.

I clenched my teeth but did not look away, though I'm sure my cheeks were slightly pink. It was true that I could manipulate rumors to suit my needs, and have been on the receiving end of quite a few bad rumors myself. It was the way the game of high society was played, and I was not ashamed to be good at it. But, the Duke was a different breed altogether.

"Of course he's always invited! Who would want to risk insulting him? Especially because of the rumors surrounding those who've made him angry! Have you forgotten what happened to his first wife?"

He finally looked at me then, his sharp green eyes flashing, "Do not forget your place, child, I've forgotten nothing. What that doesn't change is the fact that he is one of the wealthiest men you will ever meet, and the best match possible."

He set the glass down and read the paper that his manservant – Gustav – handed him.

I had been dismissed.

I simply couldn't believe it and sputtered with indignation, "Best match? To that monster? I could think of five better men off the top of my head right now! All of whom are better matches!"

"Oh? Do all those men more than fifty ships and exclusive trade routes to the west that would take us decades to build?"

Momentarily astounded by the fact that the Duke had an armada, my mouth gaped open, but then my mind started working again, "So you're marrying me off to the worst man in the country, simply because he has more ships? For a few year's worth of work?" I almost yelled at him. So

"Stop being so melodramatic. You are hardly being sold off. After all you'll live a very comfortable life with him. Though, I do suggest you make yourself more amiable. And Areena," he said, with a hard voice, "Never talk to me like that again. Is that clear?"

I trembled with the effort to not throw something at him. But I knew that a childish display like that would only reinforce his perception of me being dramatic.

So, without uttering a single word, I got up and walked out with my head held high. My legs were weak as I went up to my room, and it was hard to maintain a façade. All the servants took one look at face, bowed, and got out of my way. I barely noticed any of them.

Once it my room, I slammed the door, and fell to the floor, my legs seeming to have lost all strength. I gritted my teeth in frustration. My fists were sore from how tightly I clenched them but the added pain did little to clear my mind. No, I still saw red, and the rage refused to abate. How dare he treat me like I was no better than cargo?

The reality of what had just happened set in and I stared blindingly ahead. The luxuries of my life surrounded me, form my large bed, to my countless dresses and more jewels than I could wear – and never had I wanted any of it. There was only one thing I could focus on.

I was going to be forced to wed Frederick Guerret – the Duke of Harleum.

I giggled at the very thought, and that led to hysterical laughter that I just could not seem to stop. To think, that Areena Hartsworth – a girl whose standing in society was beyond reproach and was known far and wide for her sharp tongue and arrogance – was treated like no more than an average prostitute, sold to the highest bidder.

It was ridiculous, really.

But my bouts of hysterical laughter soon subsided because that was exactly what was going to happen. I was going to be sold off to the Duke. I had always expected that I would be married off to some noble household, maybe even royalty, but my blood chilled at the thought of consorting with that Devil.

That was the one thing I could not even begin to understand in my father's actions. Why would he push me towards him? The Duke was one of the most notorious men in Corul, perhaps even the most. In terms of money and title, my father was right, no one was better, but there are some things that money cannot replace. Never mind the fact that the Duke was the same almost the same age as my father – that, while being disagreeable, was socially acceptable.

Though, if that was all, I still might've gone through with it. I wasn't unrealistic, despite what my father may think, and I knew better than to expect a happy union. However, both men had a strong dislike of each other that neither had bothered to hide. Father's decision made no sense.

The Duke was known for doing unmentionable things - things that no man should ever be allowed to do. The rumours that followed in his wake weren't simply scandalous, they were horrifying, like the fact that his late wife met a mysterious accident, almost immediately after her affair had been revealed. Or that a man who stole something of his was cut up into tiny pieces and his head is still missing. The stories were endless, but even if I dismissed them, I still remembered meeting him.

A ball, much like dozens of others that I had been to in Harleum, with a tall man in black at the centre. The man's looks were moderately attractive for a man his age with dark hair, a light completion and a well-maintained physique, but those eyes of his – those eyes were as empty and black as the Devil himself. I knew at the moment I met those eyes that none of the rumors were exaggerations. If anything, the man had most probably done worse and left no one alive to speak of it.

There was no saying what could happen if I were bound to such a man. I was terrified beyond reason or understanding. And so, that night, while everyone else slept, I stayed awake and thought only of one thing.


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