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Never look back, unless you're planning to go that way.
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. To be precise, it read:
'Areena, I ask that you come to the main dining hall and have dinner with me on the eve of my return to Thornhill Manor.'
I frowned and leaned forward on the mahogany desk, resting my chin on my palm. Well, it was short but to the point, much like the man himself. I momentarily played with the thought that perhaps this was a prank but quickly discarded it as no one else had this handwriting. I hadn't been to the main dining hall in a while, for it was much too big for me to eat alone. We only use that for special occasions and when my father's acquaintances come over.
Now, what could he possibly want?
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 even exist, and to be quite honest, that worked quite well for me. He only called upon me when he wanted me to go to some party, or rebuke me for acting in an undignified manner, and even then he would barely talk to me.
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.
My father – Count Roland Hartsworth – was a man whose importance in the city of Asarel was, perhaps, above even his significant title; 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.
He was a very busy man. I knew that. I didn't begrudge him for that. Hence, I wasn't used to having a great many conversations with him. My childhood was based on the idea that children are to be properly behaved and out of sight. This may have caused for some loneliness, but there were far worse things that can happen within a family. 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.
However, growing up listening to stories about faraway lands and adventures from the numerous travelers that passed by led me to be somewhat overly fond of the world outside the beautiful Island of Corul. The library was my favorite place and stocked full of journals – mainly of the continent of Eluhie and its diverse cultures. There was Marook in the east, which was the closest country to our shores, and it's borders were Silvia and Parga, then Tamara in the north and Corcena in the southern portion. But the farther lands were obscure and not very well known yet.
Mary's life outside the mansion was also interesting. She was the closest thing I had to a mother and the stewardess of the mansion, who took care of its day-to-day running of the main house. She told me about how the people of Asarel pride themselves on hard work and honor.
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, it would not be pleasant.
My father was already seated when I entered. I sat on the opposite end of the dining table with father, still mildly shocked that he was even there. 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 coldness in them that made me feel like I was looking at a stranger. It always surprised me how different my eyes were, as compared to his.
How strange it felt, to not know your own blood. The large dining table separated us, but there was a much larger space that had nothing to do with physical measurement.
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 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. He was not one for polite chitchat, my father – at least, not with me. 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.
My suspicions were steadily growing worse every minute that he disregarded me. Not that this was particularly unusual, but that feeling in my gut telling me something bad was going to happen was growing stronger.
Father, frank and assertive as always, wasted no time with pleasantries 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 beginning, that I had to blink in shock for a few moments to gather my bearings. I brought my tablecloth to the corner of my mouth and wiped it and calmed myself down. I had known this day was approaching for some time now. Love marriages were for commoners, not nobility. However, his nonchalant attitude rubbed me the wrong way and I felt the first stirrings of anger.
"Who am I to wed?" I asked in a measured tone after I got a hold of myself.
He finished his last bite of the main course, 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 wide-spread. He had been accused of everything from corruption to slavery and God knows what else.
"I will not marry that scoundrel. 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.
"Father, surely nothing good would come out of such a union. That man is the Devil incarnate! You, yourself, have spoken against him many a times. It could ruin our reputation."
He finally looked at me then, his sharp green eyes flashing, "Do not forget your place, child. He is one of the wealthiest men you will ever meet. Such a union is bound to be profitable," he said, his voice no different from before.
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, "Profitable? Am I to be treated as nothing more than a prostitute? To be sold off to the highest bidder? What could I have possibly I done to deserve this?"
"Stop being so melodramatic. You are hardly being sold off. Consider it your privilege. After all you will 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 trembled as I went up to my room. All the servants took one look at face, bowed, and got out of my way. I barely noticed any of them.
I slammed my bedroom door shut so hard that the window panes rattled. 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.
I should've taken the pistol he's so bloody proud of and shot him! He never uses it anyway; it's simply a glorified showpiece, for him to show off in front of his acquaintances.
The reality of what had just happened staggered me and I fell backwards onto my bed. I stared blindingly at the rouge canopy above me. 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 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!
It was ridiculous, really.
But my bouts of hysterical laughter soon turned to sobs because that was exactly what was going to happen. 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 of a Duke.
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 disgusting, 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. Hence, father's actions did not make any sense.
The Duke was known for doing unmentionable things - things that no man should ever be allowed to do. Many rumors followed in his wake, 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.
Therein lays the true reason for my anger.
I was terrified beyond reason or understanding by what would happen to me if I was given to such a man. And so, that night, while everyone else slept, I stayed awake and thought only of one thing.