THE SUN WAS already high by the time they reached their destination. It was a small town Violet hadn’t heard of before, located far far away from her hometown and out of Steinfield Asylum’s reach. They had ridden for hours on horseback and by the time they trotted into town, Violet could barely even feel her legs any longer. She was merely clinging onto the horse for her dear life, praying that they would stop somewhere to rest soon.
“We are almost there,” Maddox assured from behind her, his voice soothingly sweet to listen to despite being drenched with exhaustion. Unlike Violet, he hid it rather well. “Hang in there for a few moments more.”
The streets of the town were bustling with life. Throngs of people weaved across the cobbled pavements, some running towards stores and pubs as if their lives depended on it while some took their time, chattering with their company along the way. Occasionally, a horse-drawn carriage would drive by, parting the crowd temporarily before they melded together once the carriage had passed.
In this town, both the rich and the poor seemed to coexist in somewhat harmony. Violet noticed that the people here wore their status on their bodies, some clothing made of silks and laces while others made of humble cotton. Nevertheless, both groups of people interacted kindly with one another, a scene she was unfamiliar to.
During her childhood years, she had only ever seen the contrast between the rich and poor. The town she grew up in was unforgiving to those at the bottom of the social ladder. While some people claim that nothing was ever consistent in life, there was something she knew for a fact that was; the poor would only get poorer while the rich got richer.
As such, because of the stark contrast that split their society, Violet had never known her family — which belonged to the upper crust — to ever interact with the peasants in any friendly manner. In their eyes, they were mere servants and would only be as such, never amounting to more for the rest of their lives. Her family valued status, wealth, and worshipped power.
That was something she had always disliked about them, among many other things. Thus, the scene in this new town was refreshing.
Eventually, they stopped in front of a tavern, one surprisingly closed despite it being lunch hour, an opportune business time. The ’closed’ sign hanging from the door most certainly did not stop Maddox. He hopped off the horse before helping Violet off the animal. When her feet finally touched the floor again, she staggered a little, swaying on the spot. Maddox had to reach out to stabilize her, his hands on her waist to keep her from toppling over like a domino.
“It’s closed,” Violet pointed out with a frown. “Are you sure this is the place you intend to bring us?”
“Yes,” Maddox replied firmly, “I’m sure.”
“Is there something special about this place?” She continued to ask, eyeing the wooden sign that bore the tavern’s name in curiosity. In bold italics, the words ‘The Tipsy Willow’ were written in black. Their house symbol was that of a willow tree’s silhouette, swaying in the caress of the wind.
“A few friends,” came Maddox’s vague answer. “They owe me a favor or two. Let’s just say I’ve come here to collect a debt.”
Without bothering to knock, Maddox pushed the doors of the tavern open and walked inside. Surprisingly, the place wasn’t locked as Violet had originally assumed. The two continued in, stepping into the quiet main space of the tavern. Since it was closed, the chairs were all flipped up on the tables, the floor sparkling clean as if it had just been wiped down. As expected, the place was empty, so quiet that if a pin dropped it could be heard crisp and clear.
Their footsteps echoed with each step they took, advancing towards the bar counter furthest away from the door right beside a flight of stairs. It also served as the front desk for those that seek a night at the rentable rooms upstairs.
Hearing the noise they had made, a man emerged from the doors behind the counter. He was much older, a person that was haggard and worn down by time with hair as gray as storm clouds and eyes that were nearly closed due to the weight of his skin. The clothes he wore were neat, an obvious uniform for the tavern’s workers as it bore the symbol of the willow tree on his vest. In his hands was a glass and a cloth, his fingers still wiping down the stains on the glassware.
“We’re closed,” the old man said with a sneer. “Come back later.”
“I simply want a scotch,” Maddox calmly ordered with a smile. “With a pinch of salt and a lot of sugar in gold.”
Upon hearing Maddox’s odd request, the old man’s wiping movements stopped. He squinted a little more, his eyes nearly disappearing before he huffed under his breath. Sighing, he started making his way back towards the door, murmuring under his breath the entire way.
“Wait ’ere. I’ll go get ’im,” was all he said before he disappeared from their view.
“That wasn’t a drink you ordered, was it,” Violet cleverly deduced. As she watched the smile on Maddox’s face spread, she knew that she had hit the nail on its head.
“Clever girl,” he remarked. “Indeed so. It is a person I seek, not a drink.”
Before Violet could ask for more information to satiate her curiosity, a new voice cut off her words before they could even leave her lips. She turned at the sound, examining the man that had walked forward with a smile on his lips, steps as silent as air.
“Look who we have here!” The man joyously laughed, spreading his arms wide with his palms facing up in mock surprise. “Maddox Haster himself, the criminal. Where are the prosecutors when you need them?”
“You and your dramatics,” Maddox scoffed, rolling his eyes.
“And you love it,” the man smoothly retaliated.
He then spun his attention towards Violet, still wearing the welcoming smile, practiced but insincere this time. Violet recognized it all too well. After all, she was taught how to equip that very same expression as well when she was younger. There was no doubt about it. This man was of noble blood.
“And this must be your friend?” The stranger asked Maddox, practically looking down at Violet due to his height. That only made Violet feel all the more inferior.
“Ah, yes,” Maddox cleared his throat a little, gesturing to the man behind the counter, “Violet, this is Arthur Cecil, a dear friend of mine. Arthur, this is—”
“Violet Harper,” Arthur cut in, finishing Maddox’s sentence for him. Recognition lit up his eyes but he didn’t seem any keener on explaining. Rather, he held out a hand which Violet immediately placed hers into. Ever a gentleman, Arthur lifted it to his lips, pressing a fleeting kiss on the back of her hand before gently letting it go. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. And please, Arthur is fine.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Violet returned. “How did you…”
“The Harper family is well-known.” It seemed like a habit of Arthur Cecil’s to cut into others’ sentences. He had his answer ready before Violet could even finish his question. “But surely you already know that.”
“So is yours,” came Violet’s response.
The Cecils were a family of nobility, powerful and right on par with the Harpers. Their name was brought up more than once in Violet’s early education years when her family still thought her useful enough of a tool to learn about the world outside. Of course, she had never met any of them even when she was still home. There was never a need to for she was already engaged to someone else even before she had reached her teens. Thus, it was no surprise that she hadn’t recognized Arthur Cecil at sight.
This time, Arthur’s smile was slick but held more warmth than before. It was better, friendlier, more amiable with the intention to befriend rather than caution against. However, it still held unspoken words that Violet could hear all the same. Not all sentences had to be vocalized in order for them to be understood.
“Ah, but if you would be so kind, I would rather not have myself associated with whatever the rest of my family are up to. My brothers’ reputations are not linked with mine.”
“Well said.” Violet nodded.
“Now that introductions have been made, why not we move somewhere else to continue our conversation?” Arthur directed the question to Maddox, raising an eyebrow.
The latter, who had his arms folded across his chest the entire time Violet and Arthur were exchanging words, stretched a hand out to gesture at the backdoor behind the counter.
“Lead the way,” he said.
With that said, Arthur spun on his heel and started to head towards the door. Just like when he had arrived, his footsteps were practically silent. Violet couldn’t hear any weight in his steps as they were as light as a feather. His movements reflected that as well, his body practically gliding across the wooden floor like gravity had no effect on him.
Holding open the door, he waited for Maddox and Violet to pass before stepping through it himself. When she walked past him, she felt a shiver run down the back of her spine. The temperature wasn’t low, especially inside the tavern’s warm walls. Rather, it was the man that held the door open that radiated the bitter sting of the north.
Like all nobles, there was no doubt that Arthur Cecil was a dangerous man. Even more so if he could stand on his own two feet, fine and well even without requiring the influence of his powerful family to make a place for himself in this world.
Violet was starting to understand what Luna had meant last time. Indeed, Steinfield Asylum was a children’s playground when compared to the world beyond its tall walls. The outside world was no place for the sane nor was it anything near a safe wonderland.