A lone girl sat on a bed, staring out the window at the tranquil, night sky. Her platinum white hair fell upon a fancy dress, beautifully arranged and specifically chosen to accent her finely developing body. However, the girl could care less about that, having been imprisoned in this room against her will.
Eryn looked over at the tall mirror next to her bedside, clicking her tongue at the sight of herself dolled up. ‘This outfit does not suit me at all,’ so she thought, wanting to rip it off right away.
However, her knight’s outfit and her sword had been taken away, leaving her no choice but to play dress-up for her groom-to-be, Duke Charlemagne. Furthermore, a bracelet containing high-quality mana stones rested on her left wrist, siphoning away her mana if she were to call forth it. This bracelet was an unequipable shackle typically used on criminals adept in magic, locking away their abilities. On her right wrist, a bracelet of similar style was enchanted with gravity magic, dulling the speed of her movements. Though it didn’t activate under normal circumstances, each time rapid movement was detected, Eryn was enshrouded by a heavy atmosphere that made it difficult to move for a few seconds.
Just how had she gotten herself into this mess? Just yesterday, she had returned from a long trip to rid the region of a dragon. Things were never looking better for her progress. Upon entering the guild, a receptionist raced over to reveal the news of her uncle’s untimely death.
Immediately dropping the report that she had prepared on the ground, Eryn raced towards the trading company to see for herself.
By the time she arrived, tears had started streaming down her face. Her eyes widened as she saw many soldiers standing in front of the building. Wiping her face with her sleeve, she called out to them.
“Where is my uncle!? Where is Roland Faulkner?!”
The men looked at each other with stony expressions before they parted ways to allow her to pass. Eryn didn’t hesitate to tear open the door and enter.
Inside, people were frantically shuffling about in an attempt to reorganize. With the head of the trading company’s passing, several men, who believed themselves to be in charge, started barking orders all around. The issuance of several orders, some of which conflicting, led the workers to scratch their heads in confusion of which to execute. Roland had several close assistants, but no one specifically designated as his substitute, so no one knew who to follow.
As Eryn entered the door, this all came to a grinding halt. Their voices hushed in respect for the relative of the man they all followed. Taking hold of this moment, Eryn called out to them.
“Wh-Where is uncle?”
One man, who had a stack of papers in one arm, slowly pointed out the back entrance. Nodding to him in thanks, Eryn walked out before the crew of workers slowly resumed their work.
A lone cart sat in the middle of the loading dock where their stock came in. A blanket had been draped over the top. Pulling it back slowly, rays of light shone onto a familiar face with a ghastly pale complexion. A patch of darkened blood soaked through the clothing over his chest, which showed that a single stab wound had likely been the cause of death.
“No…it can’t be…not again…WHY?!” Eryn’s voice started choking as she was faced again with the loss of her family.
Tears freely dripped from the corners of her eyes onto the ground as she backed away. Several moments passed before another voice broke the sound of her sobbing.
“Condolences, my dear knight. What an unfortunate circumstance that he found himself in.”
Eryn looked up and saw the blurry image of a man in fancy clothes. Wiping away her tears, this time she could clearly see the renowned person in front of her, Duke Charlemagne. Though his head was bent downwards and a hand was over his heart in respect, the words he spoke sounded hollow and practiced.
“Why, may I ask that you have graced my presence?” Eryn spoke with an air of nobility.
“Of course, it is to offer you my deepest sympathies. And also, to sort out a certain matter in terms of succession.”
Since Roland Faulkner carried a nobility title, the matter of succession was always a troublesome matter when one passed away, especially when that death was unplanned. Eryn knew that various circumstances complicated the matter. One being that no one else in the Faulkner house carried a nobility title yet. The title of Baronet did not get passed on to relatives and was only in effect for the current generation. If Eryn had been able to gain a title from her efforts, then there would be no question of her succession.
As it stood now, there was no one to lead House Faulkner and the family business. Either, she would have to gain a title immediately, or wed someone else that currently held one. In the latter case, it was likely that her family name would be lost as she would be married into her partner’s house, but at least the business would be saved. Not wanting to give up either, Eryn desperately reached out for a favor.
“I have achieved many things! Surely, I can be allowed to claim house Faulkner as its Lord!” Eryn bowed deeply as she spoke with a clear voice.
“Sorry. That is not how it works. Rules are rules, after all.” The Duke spoke with a slight grin. “Even a Duke is not a King.”
“Please! I beg of you! I will do anything!”
“Anything? How tempting of an offer…” The Duke paced around, licking his lips.
Eryn felt a cold chill run down her back. She did not like the sound of that.
“A budding flower, beautiful and strong. What man could resist if one such as yourself were to devote herself to me?” The Duke walked over and gently lifted Eryn’s chin up, gazing into her eyes with a lustful expression.
Given the Duke’s reputation of having many lovers that were used and then discarded, Eryn could tell where this was leading.
“How about it? I can ensure that House Faulkner will continue, and your little trading company will continue to prosper.” The Duke grinned widely, but Eryn could only see it as making a pact with the devil. Biting her lip hard enough to draw blood, she hesitantly gave her answer.
“Fine. I…I will be your lover-“
“No. Not lover. You will be…my wife.” The Duke interrupted her misunderstanding.
Eryn’s eyes grew wide. The Duke had never taken a wife before. Why her? And if she were married to the Duke, then who would lead in her family’s name? Many questions rose within her thoughts as her eyes looked on in confusion.
“You have a familiar, do you not? One that is a distinguished hero. One that the people recognize. He will be a fine substitute in your stead.”
Of course, Claude could take her place as the family’s head; he would be bound to her and also make a name for himself in many ways. The Duke could easily arrange for a title for him under these circumstances. Suddenly, a thought flashed in Eryn’s mind. The Duke’s words sounded ever so convenient, as if everything had fallen into place.
“You…Did you…do this?” Eryn scooted away from the Duke, hand reaching for her sword.
Suddenly, several men appeared around them, weapons at the ready. Eryn kept herself from drawing her sword and instead, released her grip on the handle.
“Tsk. Tsk. It is rude to draw your weapon against someone of my standing. But I shall forgive you for your misconception. However…my offer still stands. Become my bride, and you will still hold onto your parents’ legacy. If not, then I cannot very well let this smear be overlooked,” the Duke said snidely.
Now, Eryn was sure that the Duke played some part in the recent events. His eyes remained firmly fixated on her, making her believe that she had in fact been his target all along. Though she knew her chances of being scooped up by a noble were pretty high, she had hardly suspected that someone as important as the Duke had set his eyes on her. She had let her guard down on the wrong person.
At this point, she had no choice but to accept, as she knew of the Duke’s vast sphere of influence. Just like what happened to her uncle, she could see the same happening to others she knew.
Holding out a hand to accept the terms, the Duke grasped it and pulled her along, past the onlooking staff of the trading company. He briefly paused to converse with a young man with glasses.
“Dengel, see to it that arrangements are made for our ceremony,” said the Duke casually, while the other man nodded.
As Eryn was led out the front door, a feeling of despair and helplessness crept up her body, as her limp arm was tugged forward.
“Hey! What are you doing to Eryn!?” A familiar voice broke through the crowd of soldiers in front of her. She could see her familiar’s face poking out in between the men.
“Oh, looks like the hero has shown up to save the princess. What a hackneyed scene, one that I care not for.” The Duke bent down and whispered in Eryn’s ear. “I don’t think I have to tell you what may happen if your familiar decides to cause trouble. Be a dear and take care of it.”
Eryn looked over to the soldiers that surrounded them. There were a good 40 men, decked out in high class armor. Their disciplined movements and auras of confidence suggested that they were veterans of combat. If Claude were to strike, he would surely be taken down in a quick and efficient manner. Given that the Duke controlled much of the military, any number of consequences could result from his show of force. She had to avoid that at all costs. Stepping through the crowd of soldiers, she faced Claude, determined to drive him away.
“Eryn, are you okay? Did he do anything to you?” Claude came up to her with a troubled expression. No doubt he had heard the news of her uncle’s passing.
“I will be marrying the Duke.”
Claude’s face contorted in surprise. She couldn’t blame him. The announcement had come from nowhere, but she didn’t have time to beat around the bush.
“I will be marrying into Duke Charlemagne’s house, where I will then become the Duchess. A status upgrade any noble would dream of. Because of that, I will be retiring from the guild. I no longer need your services anymore as the kingdom’s army will be my guard. You are hereby free to do as you wish from now on.”
“No… what are you saying?” Claude’s voice felt stuck in his throat as his knife dropped from his hands.
‘Please get away, Claude!’ Eryn clenched her teeth. She couldn’t let this drag on.
“Why? After all we’ve done! After all we’ve been through! How could you-“
Eryn snapped at that moment, unsure of what else to do to drive him away. The disgust she felt, for the Duke, for herself in agreeing to this situation, tainted her words with a particular venom.
“I NEVER CARED FOR YOU IN THE FIRST PLACE!”
Surprised at her own outburst, she knew that she had just said something that couldn’t be taken back. Crestfallen at her own impulsiveness, Eryn quickly looked down to hide the tears brimming around her eyes.
“Just go,” she whispered.
No longer able to bear the sight of Claude leaving, she chose to close her eyes to avoid seeing it. Her eyes felt hot and damp. Only when she heard something land next to her feet did she will herself to open them again. Seeing the Duke approaching to retrieve her, she bent down and grabbed the bag on the ground.
Eryn rose from the bed and went over to the small bag sitting on the desk. She had hesitated to open it, Claude’s parting gift after a tense situation. As she slowly undid the string holding it together, a single spiky ball, one of many, rolled out and onto the desk with a clatter.
They looked strangely familiar to the candies that she had at home, her father’s final gift. Yet, these were a bit more misshapen, made by the hands of an amateur.
“Did Claude make these?” Eryn said, popping it into her mouth.
The nostalgic sugary taste and distinct crunch made her heart suddenly pound. Her promise to overcome her fate, her determination to see it through – like the candy in her mouth, it was crushed and slowly dissolved to nothing.
Even the one who had given her the smallest glimmer of hope, she had rejected him. She had thrown him away, all so that she could hold onto what she thought was dearest.
What did she have left now?
Though she had been promised her family’s name, she had traded her freedom, her friends, her future – everything she cared about to hold onto a distant memory.
Realizing this, the strength in her legs gave out, and she slunk to the floor. And then, she cried. With no one to hear her, she cried long and hard, forgetting about her prideful self. Forgetting the wall that she had placed around herself all those years after her parents’ passing.
When the sobs and tears finally subsided, rays of dawn poked through the window and cast down on her. Eryn sat up and brushed the weariness in her eyes away.
As she looked upon the bag of candies once again, a new promise was made.
“The Duke will pay for what he’s done. I won’t give up until I see it through.”