Silence lingered between Victoria and Dimitri for a majority of the journey towards the Leonhart estate, both exhausted and famished from the lack of sleep and food they needed. It was only a few days ago when a band of rogues ambushed the caravan and mercilessly slaughtered whoever got in their path while pilfering whatever provisions they had packed in the carriage. Despite being overwhelmed by the sudden surprise, the maiden and the butler were able to escape on horseback with just the clothes on their backs and whatever logic remained in their minds.
Though Victoria deemed herself a fearless individual who laughed at the face of danger, the memory of her having to shoot a person dead traumatized her. The young woman could distinctively recall the stench of blood filling her nostrils and the loud ringing in her ears. She was oblivious to the world around her and if Dimitri was not there to bring her back to reality, she would have been one of the fallen soldiers lying on the ground. The butler saved her life and she was grateful that he whisked her away from the situation instead of staying there in an attempt to avenge the dead.
If she were her normal self and did not firsthand experienced the situation, Victoria would have found the matter humorous due to the irony surrounding it. Mere moments before those criminals attacked them, Dimitri confessed that he was an infamous outlaw who inspired others to follow his lead and instead of facing the death penalty like most, his life was spared in exchange for his freedom and power. A part of her was petrified that the elder she considered like family could be a ruthless outlaw while another admired him for enduring the punishment over escaping or possibly ending her father's life.
Having those thoughts in her head, Victoria could not help but wonder how he was able to live knowing what crimes he committed. Determined to at least have an answer to the question, she called Dimitri by name and the butler glanced over his shoulder as a sign to tell her that he was listening.
"Dimitri, were you this shaken up the first time you committed something like this?"
A grim expression crossed the elder's face, but he kept his attention forward so Victoria was unable to see it. "There is a difference between defending yourself and committing a crime. You did no such terrible act."
It was not the response that she was expecting and Dimitri sensed that it was also not going to satisfy her curiosity. The elder sighed as he pulled on the horse's reins and the stallion slowed to a walking pace to give his rider more time to explain.
"To be honest, the first crime I did involved murder, but it was not simply for the hell of it," he continued. "The bastard had a bounty on his head and as someone who wanted the coin, I took the opportunity and killed him.
"I felt like I was doing the world a favor and without a second thought, I killed whoever I believed was unworthy of breathing the same air I did. It was only a matter of time that the thrill I got from murdering people waned and my mind began to play games with me to the point where I thought the dead would come and do the same things I did to them."
Victoria shuddered at the truth. There was no hesitation in the butler's tone and she was partially scared of asking if he wanted to do such things now, but she had to know.
"And now?" she whispered.
"I will only end someone's life if they dare to take away what I cherish or make an attempt to end mine," he answered.
"So, you felt remorse for doing what you did?" Victoria questioned.
Dimitri shook his head. "No. Some of those people deserved to die for what they did. Though I made myself infamous, I would never stoop down to the level of crimes those people did. Never once did I take advantage of someone against their will, sell them off like cattle or use their husks in order to gain profit."
A lump formed in Victoria's throat before she nodded in understanding. She was aware that the world was a chaotic place that was littered with deceivers and backstabbers. It did not matter if they were the monarch of a grand kingdom or the worst of criminals; everyone had something they were guilty of, but one admitted it while the other keeps it concealed.
The fact that someone would take pleasure in taking a part of those crimes Dimitri mentioned made her sick. Nobody that was oblivious to the dark crevasses of the world should become a victim of any assault to the point where their spirits would break or have their freewill completely stripped away from them. The thought about what those criminals would do to their victim's bodies once they were dead was something Victoria did not even want to think about as she shook whatever morbid ideals out of her head.
"Is there anything else you want to ask about my past before we arrive to our destination?" Dimitri asked after a moment of silence.
"Those people you killed, were any of them women or children?"
Dimitri pulled once more on the reins, causing the horse to come to a halt. Victoria lifted her gaze towards the butler in confusion as he glanced over his shoulder, a mix of emotions plastered on his face. The young woman initially flinched at the harshness, but she then recognized the sorrow and weariness that was hidden beneath the rough exterior.
"I tried to reason with them, but they did not want to hear any of it," he admitted. "Children are cleverer than what we give them credit for and women are not to be underestimated just because they are considered the softer gender. In truth, I am more terrified of what they are capable of than any man."
"Is that why you tell me to be myself and not allow anyone to convince me otherwise?" Victoria inquired.
Dimitri hesitantly nodded. "I've seen what happens to those who have a strong spirit and people don't approve of it. They'll do anything in their power to snuff it out, which results in two things. That person becomes like a doll that anyone can toy around with or they become a monster who loses all sense of morality."
"And you view me as the second if nobody sided with me."
It was not a wavering question, but a firm statement. The butler knew her better than she anticipated and she nearly dreaded asking one of the thoughts that tauntingly poked her brain.
"If I did lose my sense of mind, would you kill me?"
Dimitri should have expected the young woman to raise the hypothetical situation, but to hear bring it up made him tense. Victoria noticed the butler's change of demeanor as his shoulders stiffened then he snapped the reins to make the stallion move. The horse immediately obeyed as it started to walk then sped up to a canter.
"Dimitri?" she pried.
"If there was no other choice, yes. However, it would take all my willpower to overcome those feelings of wanting to protect you and I would regret it later down the road," he confessed. "Though I surrendered my former life to live the life of a servant, you treated me like a person and as a family that I never had."
Victoria felt a pang of guilt, forcing whatever thoughts that tempted her to speak to be silent. The young woman did not mean to make the butler upset, but her curiosity made the conversation take a turn for what she believed was the worst case scenario. For the moment, it was better to hold her tongue and only speak when it was absolutely necessary.
Noticing the maiden's change in demeanor, a weary sigh slipped from Dimitri's lips as the tension in his body dissipated and his shoulders slumped. In truth, the butler was not upset that Victoria inquired about his past yet he did not want to reveal so much that it frightened her. He could hear the tendrils of fear in her voice and the fact that they narrowly fled from an unforgiving fate only fueled whatever uncertainty within her. The elder decided he would only make his thoughts known when it was needed and protect the merchant's daughter at all costs.
A pregnant silent loomed in the air as the two ventured northward, the cool winds greeting them in an unpleasant manner. Victoria shivered as she pressed herself against Dimitri for warmth, quietly wishing that the crisp cool air was only temporary and that the humid heat she was accustomed to would come. The young woman lifted her gaze towards the mountains and sighed in defeat; with how thick those snowcaps were and how the once blue sky now took on a gray hue, it told her that summer would not be welcomed in these regions.
"We're here," Dimitri stated.
"Here?" Victoria questioned.
As the young woman shifted her attention from the mountains downward, her eyes widened with astonishment. Resting at the foot of the natural landscape was a castle that towered several stories tall, made of stone, shingles and other materials suited for the winter climate. Just from the sheer size, Victoria knew that the structure was more than double the size of the estate she grew up in and the thick wall surrounding it proved that it could keep whatever intruders outside and guests inside.
It a way, it reminded her of the fortresses she saw illustrated in some of the books she read and that foreboding feeling she had nearly forgotten about began to resurface. The moment she stepped foot into this estate, Victoria would be cut off from the world outside of the stone walls and the only way she would be able to explore the terrains beyond it was to ask Lord Jasper permission to leave. The noblewoman mentally scoffed at the idea; there was no way that the elder lord would give her many liberties, especially if they were unbecoming of a lady. She was going to become Ivilis's wife in a few months and everyone expected her to become the demure, obedient woman.
The longer Victoria dwelled on that, a subtle anger began to boil through her veins. There was no possible way she was going to comply with that lifestyle; she had the spirit of an adventurer and it would take every spawn to rise from the abyss to break who she was and conform her to the status quo people killed for. If they wanted a battle, she would still give it to them despite the recent memory once in a while playing in her head as a reminder that she was not as invincible as she made herself to be.
Victoria was deep into her thoughts that she did not hear Dimitri call her name until he said it in a firm manner. The young woman snapped to and noticed that they were in front of a set of iron doors and standing there were four guards, all garbed in heavy armor and brandishing a variety of newly polished weapons. Unlike the eccentric men who were posted at the entryway of the southern estate, these soldiers rivaled the butler in size and had the same firm expression marked on their battle worn faces.
"This is Lady Victoria?"
The noblewoman shifted her gaze towards the guard who spoke. The man staring directly at her was well into his prime years and had those scrutinizing eyes several nobles bore whenever they were doubtful of someone's words. Victoria straightened herself on the stallion and matched his even gaze, a hard set frown crossing her lips.
"Do you have a problem knowing that I am the lady my servant speaks of?" she inquired.
"Your servant, Sir Dimitri Artemus has spoken on your behalf when it came to the introductions my lady," a second guard answered. "Had you not said anything we would've believed that your journey was quite traumatic."
Victoria turned her attention away from the soldiers. "The travel itself was less than pleasant. Now are you going to let us in or do you need to bring the lord of the estate out here to validate our identities?"
The northern men became defensive by her sharp tone by the way they silently tensed up her bodies and tightened their grips around the weapons.
"Gentlemen, if it is hard proof you require then I am able to reveal it," Dimitri stated.
The soldiers did not speak, but they gave a small nod as a response. A tendril of hesitation marked the butler's face before he rolled up the right sleeve of his jacket and extended his arm out towards the guards. Victoria's breath hitched when her eyes saw the crest of her family branded deep into his flesh, the serpentine dragon encircling itself around a rapier an angry red against the fair skin. She knew the estate's staff usually carried the crest on a particle of clothing, but this was the first that it was embedded into someone's skin and there was no way to remove it.
Noticing that the soldiers have yet to make a move, Victoria cleared her throat and caught their attention. "I believe that is more than enough evidence to know that we come from the Conner estate and frankly, I'm losing my patience. If you refuse to open these doors immediately, you can then explain to your master why the daughter of the Conner family is not where she needs to be and why you're groveling in front of him."
Any intimidating presence that the guards originally intended to use began to waver as their bodies momentarily sagged then rose to full height. It was the exact reply that Victoria was looking for and she was nearly tempted to break her facade at that moment. The young woman was truly exhausted and if they were turned away by these men, she would have told Dimitri to return to the forest where they could rest on the first tree available.
"Forgive us for our insubordination, Lady Victoria," the first soldier apologized. "We'll have the doors opened."
Victoria remained silent and leaned against the butler's back, taking her attention away from the guards and focusing on reserving what little bit of energy to whatever situation lied next. Though they were only doing their jobs, the noblewoman wished that the northerners were not so stubborn and allowed them to pass without the requirement of showing off a seal. She honestly did not know that Dimitri had the crest branded into his skin and that made a small part of her feel sympathy for the man who was once a hardened criminal.
Not wanting to waste any time, the soldiers guarding the entrance pushed the heavy doors opened just wide enough for their guests to pass through. One of the guards patrolling decided to take the responsibility of guiding Dimitri and Victoria in and motioned for them to follow. The butler responded with a nod of understanding before he rolled down his sleeve then nudged the stallion forward.
Silence loomed over the party as they ventured through the entrance towards the main structure of the estate. The cobblestone road that the small group walked on was big enough for two carriage to fit comfortably side by side, each piece fitting perfectly against each other. On both sides of the single road were hedges that towered almost triple the height of Dimitri with various colored roses contrasting greatly against the green. Though they could see a part of the house they were to stay in for the time, Victoria guessed that behind the shrubs were many more areas she would explore once she was fully rested and supposedly welcomed.
The closer the guard escorted the two towards the castle sized building, the towering hedges gradually shortened to shrubs and the cobblestone path widened. A grand staircase made of a light colored stone greeted its visitors and on each side of the banister were marble carved dragons with their wings tucked in and staring off into the distance. Circling around the front section of the house was a patio made from the same material and dark guardrails reaching a few feet in height.
"Impressive isn't it?" the guard spoke then faced Victoria and Dimitri. "Lord Jasper will need to know of your arrival, but seeing how you two look and feel, I doubt that'll be the wisest idea."
The two did not say anything as Dimitri leaped off the stallion then aided Victoria down. The noblewoman would have argued that she did not need help getting down from the horse, but all that came out was a small grunt.
"This way. Your horse will be taken care of by one of the servants," the soldier continued.
"Lady Victoria and I would greatly appreciate that," Dimitri responded. "Thank you for your consideration."
The conversation did not last much longer as the guard guided them to the top of the staircase and paused at a set of double glass doors. Halfway up, Victoria refused to tolerate the aching pain in her feet and removed her shoes before joining the soldier and Dimitri on the patio. The butler extended a hand towards the young woman as an offering sign, but a glare from the maiden told the elder not to bother with such a small task.
"My lady and sir, welcome to Lord Leonhart's estate," the northerner greeted.
As soon as he stated those words, the guard pushed the doors open and the two southerners' eyes widened with awe. The first thing they noticed was the various hues of colors from the tapestries that lined the stone walls, the occasional vase filled with roses and the portraits of past lords from the Leonhart family. A few chandeliers made from the finest crystals and metals hung from the gothic inspired painted ceiling and the elongated windows with drawn back velvet curtains allowed natural sunlight to pour through.
In addition to the sight, Victoria and Dimitri noticed that a handful of servants stopped what they were doing and stared directly at them. Unlike her father who kept a certain protocol when it came to his staff, the people here were of varying ages and builds from an adolescent boy sweeping the floor to an elder woman polishing a suit of armor. All of them donned the same navy blue uniform with a white button down blouse and matching gloves.
Realizing that there was an awkwardness that hung in the air, the guard was the first to break the silence with a firm cough. "Servants, this is Lady Victoria and her personal aid, Sir Dimitri. They've traveled a long way from the southern estate of Lord Conner as Lord Leonhart's invited guests, but they are exhausted and had some difficulties getting here. Please make them feel welcome and get them comfortable."
The moment the order was given, a few of the elder women and men who attended to the halls placed their cleaning tools down to greet their guests. Dimitri was the first to react as a maid or two took a hold of him, examining his soiled clothes and evidently gawking at him. Victoria reacted in a similar manner when a few servants surrounded her and plucked at her clothing and hair as if she was an animal.
Exhausted and irate, the young woman pushed herself away from the inquisitive staff. "If you do not mind, Dimitri and I would like to be free from these clothes and need some rest."
"Ah, forgive us milady for upsetting you," one of the maids immediately apologized. "We'll get a bath, some clothes and rooms prepared for you. Come this way. The men will take care of your aid."
Victoria glanced over her shoulder to see that Dimitri was being whisked away by some of the male servants much to how the females were silently whining. The noblewoman would have snickered at their childish behavior, but an involuntary yawn escaping from her made that notion impossible to happen. Her body was telling her that ridiculing people would have to be saved for another time and that rest was priority.
"Goodness child, you look like you've gone through a living nightmare!" one of the maids chimed.
A second maid nodded in agreement. "What happened to you and your servant that you ended up like this? Aren't the main roads supposed to be safe?"
"Oh you two, leave the poor girl alone. Can't you see that she's exhausted?" a third interrupted. "Go and get the bath prepared as well as a set of pajamas!"
Though Victoria was not one who wanted others to speak for her, she was glad that one of the elder ladies realized that she had no interest talking about her experience traveling to the north and wanted her to relax. The noblewoman was beginning to doze off and it was not until they stopped moving her that she noticed that she was not in the colorful foyer, but in a room that was double the size of her own.
Sheer lilac curtains hung from an elongated glass door that lead out to a balcony overseeing a part of the mountains. A bed suited for a king rested on one side of the room, covered with similar colored sheets and a disturbingly large amount of pillows. Near the bed was a white washed night table where a jewelry box and candelabra stood and on the other side of the room was a matching wardrobe and vanity, complete with a mirror and a matching seat.
Shortly after she glanced over the room, the noblewoman felt the maids loosening the corset around her and removing the soiled garments off. Not a moment after her dress was off did Victoria feel the cool weather reach her and she shuddered. The maids that undressed the merchant's daughter took notice of this and immediately led her to a door that she knew she did not enter through.
"Just a few more moments and you'll be able to sleep these troubles away," one of the maids spoke.
Victoria dozily nodded in response before she heard the sound of water running and turned her attention towards it. Connected to the room was a personal bathing hall made of ivory and gold porcelain and marble. A line of circular gilded mirrors decorated one of the walls while another had a few windows that gave a pleasant view of the outdoors without someone peaking in and the final had statues of various water creatures. There were also a few tables that held countless white towels and a variety of soaps and perfumes, most likely for the young woman to relish in during her stay here.
A few minutes after she heard the maids speaking to one another, Victoria felt herself stepping into water and her eyes momentarily opened. What she expected was a simple bathtub that she had to climb into, but in reality it was a built in tub that took a good portion of the floor. The young woman's muscles relaxed the further she went int, but the maids made certain that she did not venture too far in fear that her weariness could cause her to not differentiate air from water.
Not a moment after she sat down, the maids swiftly lathered her in soaps and oils to remove the grime from her skin and hair. The scent of lavender was pleasant to Victoria's senses and she felt like she could fall asleep here.
"No falling asleep miss!" a maid warned.
Victoria winced when her hair was slightly yanked on then she coughed feverishly after having a bucket of warm water poured over her head. The pattern of being tenderly scrubbed followed by the rude wake up call of water pouring over her body happened two more times before the maids deemed her cleaned and helped her out of the tub. A startled yelp escaped from the noblewoman as the cold air touched her skin and she immediately wanted to jump back into the tub.
"It's cold!" she whined.
"Lady Victoria, give us just a moment and you'll be dressed in no time!" a maid exclaimed.
"How can someone live like this?" the merchant's daughter trembled.
Hastening their pace, the maids were able to keep Victoria from going back into the bath and dried her off with the fluffy towels. The noblewoman continued to complain until she was dressed in a simple nightgown that reached down to her ankles and covered most of her body. Though it was not her ideal clothing she preferred sleeping in, the maiden appreciate the fact that she was no longer naked in front of these strangers.
After drying the water out of her hair, the maids led the young woman from the bathing hall back to her room and tucked her in. A sigh of satisfaction slipped from Victoria's lips as she snuggled against the plush mattress and her eyelids drooped shut. The maids who attended to Victoria immediately took her soiled dress and cleaned up the bathing hall before leaving their new mistress to rest.
"Good night Miss Victoria. We'll be here in the morning to help you get ready to see Lord Jasper," one of the maids announced.
Victoria simply groaned in response as she allowed her exhaustion to take over. Tomorrow was another day filled with worries and conflicts that she would fight ceaselessly to win, but for now she was in heaven and there was nobody who would take her out of it.