The lift rattled and rocked as it descended. The attendant forced a smoker's cough into his handkerchief. The tall hooded figure beside him peered past the gate, into the dank corridor beyond. The nauseating stench of waste wafted into the lift, accompanied by the groans of the wretched souls whose cells lined the halls, but neither the attendant nor his charge seemed to notice. At the fourth floor, the lift shuddered to a stop, and the attendant wrenched the gate open.
"Like the boss told you, we got this boy in just last week," the old boar rasped as he lit a lantern, then led the way. "Exactly the sort you asked for. Short, scrawny, hardly any fight in him."
They approached a cell, ignoring jeers and pleas from those nearby. A young human lay on some straw in the corner, curled up and facing the wall.
"Get up, ya poof! You've got a visitor," the attendant barked. He turned back to the figure. "No diseases, not gelded neither; boss made sure to check. Kept him locked up separate, even, to keep the others off his pretty little arse."
The boy slowly rose to his feet and stood in the middle of his cell. His head hanged, and his smock was matted with filth. The hooded figure stepped forward and extended a hand hidden by a pristine cotton glove, and as she spoke, her voice was smooth, clear, and commanding. "Come here, boy. Let me see your teeth."
His steps were shaky as he obliged. The attendant started to protest when he opened his mouth, but found his better judgment when the figure’s glove poked and pried at the prisoner's face. The boy kept his eyes down until she finished examining his mouth, then grasped his jaw, pointing his face up at hers. Her blue eyes gleamed faintly beneath the hood as they locked with his.
The attendant fumbled with his key ring for a moment before pushing the door aside. "Looks like you got a new lease on life, boy."
Half an hour later, he was still in shock. He saw the papers stamped, saw the money change hands, but the boy was still completely lost. His new owner directed him into a carriage, and he shrunk against the opposite corner as she took her seat, keeping his eyes down. Once they had made some distance from the prison, she lowered her hood and shook out a long black mane. His eyes flicked up to look at her face, which did not evade her notice.
"A shy one, are you?" The white mare smirked at him, then looked out at the dull, gray sky. "I'll not waste my breath on an introduction if you will not speak."
"M-Martin," he choked, then cleared his throat. "My name is Martin."
She smiled at him. "I am Lady Victoria Howclair, but the specifics do not matter for now. I am your lady, and your life, dear boy, is mine."
Martin peered out at the murky skies. The sun's glow through the clouds was far from warming, but it was welcome. "I thought I would never see the sky again..."
Victoria chuckled. "I trust you won't make me regret taking you from that hole."
The carriage rolled over dirt that eventually became stone, and the surrounding hills became buildings. The sun was setting and a clock tower chimed six as they passed the city gates, and Martin climbed up on his seat to get a better look. Victoria watched him with amusement.
"Never seen the city before?"
"No, ma'am, I never left the farm before, erm..." His face fell.
She gave him a curious look. "We'll speak of that later."
He peeked over the window's edge, taking it all in. The carriage eventually stopped outside a great house, and Victoria opened the door to get out.
"This way, little one," she said, and Martin scampered after her. The carriage pulled away, and she led him up and inside. His eyes widened to take in the wondrous luxury around him.
"Welcome home. Supper will be delivered within the hour, so you will bathe before then," she said, leading him to the second to last door in the hall. "The tub is full, and a fresh smock is waiting on the shelf. Put your old one in the bin by the wall. You will be clean, dry, and dressed in the parlor in no more than forty minutes. Understand?"
Martin took a moment to realize she was speaking to him. "Y-yes, ma'am." He gave her a simple sort of bow before passing behind the screen to undress.
"We'll work on your form later." Victoria smirked, then left back into the hall.
The little human sat in the tub and mulled things over. With Victoria out of the room, he was able to think, but he could not decide what to think. He resigned himself to compliance, for whatever awaited him here was surely better than rotting in a cell. He scrubbed himself from tip to toes, making himself the cleanest he had been since the day he was born. The water was opaque with soil and suds when he finished, and he marvelled at the softness of the towel left for him. He did not know how long he had taken to bathe, but he dressed hastily before poking around the halls.
Though the house was surely fine, there was a distinct lack of finery. Oil lamps kept the hall lit, and while plain, the walls and floor were clean and smooth, except for the footprints Martin had left on his way in. Unsure of where the parlor was, he opened the first door he saw, revealing a room lined with shelves, each containing more books than he had ever seen in one place. He tried the next, and found a staircase leading down, and a faint odor of rotting eggs. The third door must have been a kitchen, with pots and pans hanging from a ceiling fixture. The fourth was open, and in this room was a roaring fireplace, before which sat Victoria, with another chair opposite her and a tea set on the table between.
"Are you acquainted with my house yet, boy?" Her expression was severe for a moment, and softened quickly. "Oh, don't give me that look. You were hardly sneaking about. Did you remember to wash behind your ears?"
"Good. I would have drowned you in the bathwater if you hadn't," she said, before sipping her tea. Martin's eyes widened.
"Oh, would that you could see your own face, boy. Come, sit. I'll pour you a cup of tea, just this once."
He walked over quietly, keeping his head bowed.
"I'm sure you have questions, little one," she stated, and poured his cup. "Ask them."
Several seconds passed while he held his cup and saucer. "What's going on?"
"You and I are chatting over tea in the parlor," Victoria immediately replied. "We are becoming more acquainted while we wait for supper to be delivered."
"But why am I here?"
"These chairs are the most comfortable in the house," she said. "I want to impress upon my new servant the standard of comfort to which I am accustomed, and which I will expect you to maintain."
He gave her a puzzled look. "I'm your servant?"
"Yes. Are you familiar with the law regarding your prior situation?" she asked.
"Well, then," she sighed. "Your crimes had earned you a life sentence. Your right to life was forfeit. Ordinarily, you would have been executed, or spent the rest of your unnaturally short life behind bars. However, I was in need of a new servant, and wrote the warden to notify me if one such as yourself was imprisoned. He notified me, and I purchased you." She sipped her tea again.
"But I'm... I'm a farmhand," Martin objected, "I only know how to grow grains."
"You are a farmhand no more. You are my servant. You will do as I say, when I say. If you fail, you will be corrected. If you continue to fail, you will be punished."
"Oh," he responded, then finally sipped his tea. He scalded his tongue, and recoiled from the cup.
"Provided you can follow my instruction, you will be housed, clothed, and fed with greater luxury than you have ever known. If you become unduly bothersome, however, you will not fear being returned to your sentence, for I will kill you myself."
Her nonchalance chilled Martin to the bone.
"Oh, don't look so frightened. That's not a threat, it's a promise. I will tolerate stupidity, but not insubordination. If you commit no crimes, you have little to fear from me." She drank again, her face neutral. "So tell me, what were your crimes?"
"Would you kill again?"
"No! I... no."
She took a long drink and looked him over. "What if I told you to?"
The question made Martin squirm.
"Oh, well. Most of your tasks are much less dramatic. Cleaning laundry, cooking, polishing silverware and the like. Beginning tomorrow, you will earn your living here by doing those things I would rather not waste my time with. So, savor this evening. I expect you to make every day just as comfortable for me."
He stared at his teacup for a while, puzzling over his uncertain future, before a knock came at the door.
"That is our supper." Victoria put her teacup aside and rose from her chair. "Come, little one."
The ram at the door greeted them with a pair of boxes and an aroma that was heavenly to Martin.
Victoria pulled a coin purse from her pocket and fished around in it. "Take those into the dining room, boy. It's the second door on the right."
Martin nodded, and took the boxes from the ram, who made small talk with Victoria. He placed the boxes on the table before lighting the room. It was just as finely plain as the rest of the house, with simple chairs in pristine condition and a dark red cloth over the table. A single shelf on the wall was home to a wine cask and some crystal glasses, but he barely noticed this, and instead gave the boxes his attention. They each held a hefty meat pie, buttered carrots, and a fresh bun drizzled with honey, all sitting on a wooden plate. Tears welled in his eyes, and he wiped them away with his palms when Victoria entered.
"Is something the matter, little one?"
"This is-is feast food," he half-sobbed. "I've only eaten three molding bread crusts in the last week, and now..." His whole body shook as he tried to steady his breathing.
Victoria pulled him to her in a half-hug. "Let's eat before it becomes cold, hm?"
Martin held back tears as he nearly ate himself sick, while Victoria gently chided him on proper use of utensils. Her brow shot up when he licked his plate clean. "Your enthusiasm is amusing, at least," she hummed. "I suppose I should show you to your room next."
He blinked several times. "My room?"
She snickered. "Did you think I would share my room with you so soon? Come, up the stairs."
She led him to the plainest room in the house. A window was hidden behind linen drapes. A small bed stood in the corner, with a cotton blanket, feather pillow, and a real mattress. There was a trunk at the foot of the bed, open and empty save another clean smock. A plain desk and stool were at the opposite wall, and a candle rested in its holder on the desk's surface. As humble as it appeared compared to everything else in the house, the sight still brought Martin to his knees. He wrapped his arm around Victoria's legs, barely choking back sobs.
"Th-thank you," he managed.
"Stand up," she told him. "That is unbecoming."
He rose and wandered around his room for a bit, absorbing it. Victoria checked her pocket watch, then cleared her throat.
"I'll be in my study for an hour or two, then I'm going to bed. The toilet is directly beneath the stairs. If you need something before bedtime, feel free to ask. Otherwise, I'll come to wake you at dawn."
She closed the door behind her. Martin explored his room with his hands to reassure himself that it was all real, but the moment his fingers touched the bed, the weight of the day crashed onto his shoulders. He was only able to pull the blanket over himself before falling asleep.
He woke in the night to the clock chiming four, in fierce need of the toilet. The moon shone through the window, and in his haze, he nearly fell down the stairs. He took a moment to figure out how to flush, then made his way back upstairs. His hand was on his doorknob, but then he heard a thumping down the hall, and saw a light beneath the Victoria’s door. He inched closer and heard her voice. He pressed his ear to the door, and then the din stopped. A tense several seconds passed, then the door flew open. Victoria's mane was a mess, gown crooked, and her features irate and red. She seized Martin by the neck.
"What are you doing," she huffed, "waiting for an invitation?"
"N-no ma'am, I heard--I didn't know, I was curious!" he stammered.
"Curious?" Her eyes narrowed. "How old are you, boy?"
Her brow furrowed, and she looked him up and down. Though he was small, his body was hard and thin, no doubt due to a poor diet and a life of labor. Twenty, at the most. She released him with a sneer. "Do not stand outside my room unbidden. You will know if I desire your company. Now go back to bed."
He staggered back into his room and leapt into bed, and Victoria stood in her doorway a while longer, staring at his door and thinking. The remaining night was restful for neither.