Chapter Six
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Chapter Six 

 

Annette shudders as she arrives at the small cafe, wishing the day hadn’t decided to be so unseasonably cold. Even with gloves on her hands, shoved deep into her coat pockets, they still refuse to warm. The iron underneath her leather collar makes her neck chill, and with the specific rules of her service she wasn’t even allowed to throw a scarf over it to keep the heat in. 

She sighs and pulls the cafe door open, strolling inside and dreading the conversation she was supposed to be having. Pullwater had once again demanded her presence, and to Annette’s frustration Cordelia didn’t seem eager to upset the Sister, giving Annette the morning to go meet with her. She spots Pullwater at a table by the window, a little ways away from other patrons, and drags her feet over to the Sister. Her brow furrows as she notices an unfamiliar man sitting beside her. 

“Who’s your guest?” Annette asks, standing above the table. 

“Good morning to you as well, Miss Baker,” Pullwater grumbles. She holds a hand out to the empty chair across from them. “Take a seat and join us.” 

“Good morning,” the man greets her. 

Annette smiles politely, though her eyes don’t join it. “Good morning,” she mutters and sits.

“It’s dreadful out there today, isn’t it?” The man asks, his voice polite and proper. He gazes out the window for a brief moment, then returns to staring at Annette’s shivering with sympathy. “Might I order you something warm to drink, Miss Baker?” 

“No,” she declines, a mild hostility in her being. 

“She’ll take a breakfast tea with one sugar and milk,” Pullwater says to him. He nods appreciatively, rising from his seat and making his way to the counter. 

“I was under the impression you had summoned me simply for another scolding,” Annette mumbles, crossing her arms over her chest and grateful that the cafe was a comfortable temperature. 

“Remove your coat, Annette, it’s dreadfully rude.” 

Annette glares at her, deciding whether or not to take a stand on the issue. She decides to save her resistance for later and removes her coat, revealing a thick buttoned shirt and a wool dress over it. “Why have you summoned me, Sister?” 

“After our last conversation,” Pullwater begins and Annette scowls, “I’ve decided I haven’t been active enough in properly pruning your manners into a respectable adulthood.” 

“I am not your child, Sister,” Annette stares out the window away from her. “I do not require your lessons any-,”

“Would you rather I share your transgressions with Miss Jones?” 

Annette’s face sours. She had only so recently earned back some of Cordelia’s respect, and while the detective never informed her of whether or not her search of Bembrook’s office yielded any results, she was clearly impressed by Annette. There was something crushing about feeling Cordelia’s disappointment in her; and as much as Cordelia hoped for her to be someone greater than she believed she could be, Annette likewise wanted to be that person. 

“Indeed,” Pullwater clears her throat, satisfied. “I have a compromise that I believe will - ah, here we are,” she turns away from Annette, greeting the man as he returns with a cup of tea for Annette. He returns to his seat beside Pullwater, smiling pleasantly as she timidly retrieves the drink. 

“Time for introductions then,” Pullwater nods, “Miss Baker, this is Deacon Billings. Deacon, this is Miss Baker.” 

“Simon,” the deacon grins, nodding towards Annette. “You may call me Simon.” 

“Annette,” she says in a low voice, taking a sip of the tea and appreciating the warmth of the cup against her thawing fingers. 

“Deacon Billings will be joining the congregation soon, Miss Baker,” Pullwater explains, “in anticipation to fill a potential vacancy for Father Thomas.” 

“You’re to be a priest, then?” Annette asks. 

“Indeed,” Simon affirms, his voice chipper and amiable. “Though it shall only be under the condition of Father Thomas’ death, so I cannot say I am praying for it to happen.” He laughs cordially. “It feels odd to hope for a calling such as that, does it not?” 

“It won’t be long,” Pullwater answers bluntly. “Father Thomas’ health continues to take a turn for the worst.” 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Annette mutters, though she doesn’t mean it. Father Thomas was boring at best and aggravating at worst. It was as though he believed every minute a mass could be extended somehow furthered the likelihood the congregants would be given entry to heaven. “Why am I here, Sister Pullwater?” 

“Be civil, Annette,” Pullwater scolds. “That is no way to speak before a Deacon.” 

“It’s no trouble at all,” Simon smiles. He’s the type of fellow who perpetually wears a polite grin. He’s tall, surprisingly tall; nearly a full head above Annette’s shoulders. He wears his brunette hair short and cleanly cut, just above a soft forehead and gentle face. While his eyes appear kindly and sociable, there’s an unexpected depth underneath the surface, and a pair of wide glasses rest on his nose. He’s pleasant enough to look at, though wasn’t likely to turn heads outside of a crowd of repressed church women, whereby he would probably be highly desired. “You’re actually here on my account, Miss Baker. I do appreciate you taking the time this morning.” 

“Am I? Whatever for?” 

“Sister Pullwater, well, when she consulted me…” he clears his throat nervously, eyes flicking over to the nun beside him. “I believed, not that it was entirely my suggestion, ahem. She thought that… we thought that-,” 

“It is time for you to marry,” Pullwater interrupts. 

“Excuse me!?” Annette sets her tea down loudly onto its saucer, splashing some onto the table as she does. She can feel the veins in her neck pop and she sits forward with a sudden warmth in her face. 

“It’s not as though we-,” Simon begins, though Pullwater interjects once more. 

“I have endured your moral vagrancy for long enough, Miss Baker,” Pullwater scowls, lifting her hands onto the table. “After our last conversation, it is clear that you will not exercise your agency to your own best interests, so I have once again taken it upon myself to set you onto a proper path.” 

“You have no right to-,” 

“Shall I speak with Miss Jones, instead?” Pullwater threatens, pushing Annette into silence once more. “The Deacon has graciously offered to meet with you.” 

“It is a pleasure, truly,” Simon beams graciously. “You are as beautiful as the Sister recounted.” 

Him?” Annette croaks, glaring at Pullwater. “You wish to affix my life to a priest?” 

Simon chuckles, “Well, priest-to-be, in fact-,” 

“I can think of no comparable option, Annete,” Pullwater asserts. “Who better to set you on a proper path for the rest of your time in this life, and the next?” 

Annette scoffs, “I can think of plent-,” 

“And he is aware of your situations,” the nun cuts. “Both of them.” 

Annette’s face flashes bright red and she quickly averts her eyes from the two of them, glaring down at the table and the spilled tea before her. 

“There is no cause to be ashamed, Miss Baker,” Simon contends, “I actually admire your decision to be born anew. It shows a true commitment to the truth of God’s creation and the honesty of your soul. And it is not necessary for a priest to sire an heir.”

She drops her face into her hands, embarrassed. 

“And as for the other,” he coughs nervously, before returning to a kindly, pastoral tone, “It is entirely common to feel, ahem… stirrings in the flesh towards the same sex. The key is correctly aligning your actions to God’s plan for us.” 

Annette glares at him, and then at Pullwater, and back towards Simon. She takes a few long, heavy breaths, trying to stabilize her shaking hands. She grits her teeth and mutters, “I thank you for your words, Deacon, but I believe I must take my leave now.” 

She stands quickly and darts out of the cafe, pulling her coat along with her. Annette stumbles outside, fumbling with her coat and trying to pull the warm fabric back over her as she begins walking away. She stops after a few moments, feeling her injured ankle complain, and to her displeasure Simon uses the opportunity to catch up with her. 

“I believe there may have been a misunderstanding,” Simon explains gently, his breath condensing in the cool air around him as he holds up his hands defensively.

Annette glances up from the streetlight she’s leaned up against, glaring at him with a clear frustration. “I don’t believe I have any further words to share with you, Deacon. I ask that you allow me to take my leave.” 

“Is your foot alright?” His head tilts and he kneels down to move closer and inspect her ankle.

She pulls it away from him, wincing at the quick moment. “It is fine. Now please leave me be.” 

Simon sighs, though remains in his position, head tilting up to meet her eyes. “I believe we may have gone off on the wrong foot, as it were,” he laughs at his own joke. “I have no intention of proposing today against your protests.” 

“There would be many,” Annette confirms. 

“I simply wished to meet you,” he explains, rising up and placing his hands into the pockets of his cloak, the white band of his smock flashing at his collar. “And to see if you might find me agreeable enough to avoid resentment.” 

“I assure you there is no man agreeable enough that I woul-,” 

“Perhaps wise not to voice such a thought so loudly and so publically, Miss Baker,” he shakes his head softly and lowers his voice. His smile softens and a timid sweetness glimmers in his eyes. “I simply invite you to keep your mind open. I have no interest in a coerced wife, and I shall not force you into any arrangement. But I fancy myself someone who might nobly protect you, both from the dangers of being an unmarried woman, and likewise from your own sinful inclinations.” 

Annette turns away, unable to meet his gaze. She groans, wondering how committed he was to following her to explain his rationale. Perhaps she could successfully stumble her way home and be free of him. 

“I could purchase you out from your contract,” Simon offers suddenly. “You wouldn’t need to remain in service to your current owner.” 

“Good day,” she dismisses, taking the risk and stumbling from him, back towards Mill Street just a few blocks away. 

“Good day, Miss Baker,” Simon sighs. “I hope we can meet again.”

Annette walks away and refuses to turn back. She touches a cold hand to the collar around her throat, a public signal of her obligations to Cordelia, and wonders how different a ring around her finger truly was. 

 

– – – 

Cordelia remains unhelpfully quiet regarding the results of Annette’s investigation, and she finds the silence infuriating. To have risked so much to attempt to recover the letter and not learn whether or not she succeeded at all feels cruel, and despite her best efforts to pull the answer from Cordelia the detective holds firm. After a few days without an answer, it’s difficult to determine if Cordelia was still working on the case at all. That is, however, until nearly a week passes and she suddenly declares for Annette to prepare her finest dress. 

“I’m wearing it,” Annette complains, gesturing to the casual dress that filled out the bulk of her wardrobe. 

“Nonsense,” Cordelia waves away her complaint. “Where have you put the corset and petticoat you wore on your first day? Don’t tell me we’ll need to replace them.” 

Annette sighs, grumbling internally about needing to wear them. “I still have those, I just rather take issue with being so constrained by clothes.” 

“Necessary evil,” the detective says simply. “You have a half hour to get ready.” 

“Miss?” 

“Do hurry, Annette. We’ll already arrive an hour late; it’s best to time an improper entrance perfectly.” 

Annette frowns for a moment, trying to read Cordelia’s face without success. She ambles upstairs, careful not to aggravate her ankle any further, and stumbles into her room to get dressed. When she does return downstairs, her lungs grumbling at the mild restraint from the corset, she’s surprised to find Cordelia has changed as well. She’s traded out her usual slacks and suspenders for a full tuxedo - long tails, top hat, and all. She’s styled her hair in such a way that it almost seems as though she cut it all off, only a small swoop drifting out from underneath the hat. 

“... where are we to be going, then?” Annette asks cautiously. 

Cordelia flicks the lapel of her coat, straightening it to align with her tie. “A ball.” 

“A ball?” Annette’s brow furrows. “And why might we be going to a ball?” 

The detective's eyes light up excitedly. “For the spectacle, and nothing less.” She dips out of the front door without another word, waving for Annette to follow her. Annette does, curious and confused, and feels her surprise register once again to see that a carriage has been called for the two of them. Cordelia happily skips up the steps, throwing herself inside with a calm and casual demeanor. Annette follows a moment later, and the collared carriage driver closes the door a breath later and begins their trip. 

“I have high expectations tonight,” Cordelia says, sitting across from Annette. “High expectations for you, to be precise.” 

“I… what exactly am I to be doing?” 

“Completing a test.” 

“Of what sort?” 

Cordelia smiles. “That’d spoil the fun.” 

Annette holds her breath. “So this is another of your plots, isn’t it?” 

“You say that as though it is a bad thing, Annette,” she gazes out the window quickly as the carriage continues on. “They have been hugely successful of late.” 

Annette nods, feeling a sense of resolve build up inside of her. She wants to pass this test despite the uncertainty. Ever since the night of the railyard she has felt her confidence pour forth, and the possibility that Cordelia might be impressed provides more motivation than she expects. “What do I need to know in advance?” 

“Excellent,” Cordelia grins, delighted by Annette’s resolve. “Simple holiday ball, put on by the Hastings family.” 

“Holiday? It isn’t a holiday.” 

“Veneration of some saint, I think,” the detective shrugs. “Can’t recall. The Hastings are particularly fond, so that’s their excuse.” 

“And what am I to be tested on at this ball?” 

“I need you to ask Lord Brimwell his opinion on fish.” 

Annette scowls. “Fish?” 

“Fish,” Cordelia confirms. 

“And this Lord Brimwell… is this the same Brimwell that owns Trentchton Hall?

“The very same.” 

Annette breathes out an excited puff of air. “So this is about Bembrook’s death? Did you find the second page?” 

Cordelia places a finger to her own lips, smiling mischievously. “Simply ask Brimwell about the fish, Miss Baker.” 

“I’ve never been to a ball before,” Annette shakes her head. “Are collars even allowed?” 

“Most of them will be serving the guests. You are my guest, so you are a special exemption. I’m sure plenty will do their part to voice their displeasure at your presence.” 

Annette scowls. “So I’m to endure the scorn of gentry?” 

“All bark, no bite,” Cordelia dismisses. “They won’t harm you.” 

“And how exactly did you secure such an invitation?” 

“From my father.” 

“Your father?” 

The detective nods. “Lord Hastings.” 

Annette chokes down her surprise. “... You're nobility?” 

Cordelia laughs happily, turning once again to peer out of the window for a few moments. “What?” 

“What do you mean, ‘what?’”

“Why are you staring at me like that, Miss Baker?” 

“Because I asked you a question and you simply laughed and ignored it.” 

“It was funny.” 

Annette frowns. “I must have missed the joke.” 

“Truly? I’m sure that if you repeated it in the ball tonight you’d find the crowd in a delirious uproar.”

“So you aren’t nobility…?” 

“I’ll add it to your list of tasks to figure out tonight,” Cordelia teases. 

The remainder of the carriage ride passes in silence, and Annette takes her time to prepare for the ordeal. Her encounters with nobility, Samantha notwithstanding, had largely been unpleasant, and she wasn’t looking forward to stepping into the room with a visible collar. And given Cordelia’s jokes and overall reputation, she couldn’t imagine that walking in with the detective would make her particularly well liked. 

The Hastings’ ball is held at the observatory, in its wide central atrium. As they step inside, Annette is immediately shocked by the scale of its grandeur, with colorful flowing curtains and flower bouquets and chandeliers and sculptures and artwork and an endless array of terrifyingly expensive things to look at. They stride in through the main doors, receiving a handful of dirty looks from guests at both their lateness, Annette’s collar, and Cordelia’s suit. 

“Far right, back of the room,” Cordelia whispers, “with the balding head and burgundy pin on his lapel.”

“Lord Brimwell?” 

“The very same.” The detective nods, gazing around the room with the confidence of a person who didn’t need to wonder what others might think of her. Cordelia knew well that she was disliked, and she wore it as permission to exist with the utmost freedom and poise. “I look forward to seeing you at work, Miss Baker.” 

“So you’re just going to dump me here and wish me luck?” Annette frowns, crossing her arms. 

“It’s all about the challenge,” she grins. “Rise to it.” 

Cordelia strolls away, descending the stairs and joining the crowds mingling on either side of the dance floor. Annette nods to herself, trying to summon her courage to continue. While she had never jumped from a train car before investigating Bembrook’s office, the streets of Bellchester were at least familiar to her. Here, Annette was in no doubt that here she was far out of her depth. 

And this was exactly what Cordelia wanted, Annette concludes a moment later, carefully strolling down the steps and feeling underdressed. Even in her nicest clothes, a plain dress, corset, and petticoat, she looked pitiful next to even the lowest lady here. But Cordelia clearly wanted to see Annette improvise and adapt to the situation, to use her mind to solve the problems of social nicety on the fly. 

Her first consolation was that no one seemed to pay her much mind. There was the occasional distasteful glance, but so often the guests’ eyes would flick from her dress up to the collar, only to quickly turn away once spotting it. Perhaps they thought she was a chambermaid seeking her mistress, or a servant out of uniform, but regardless the collar provided a helpful level of invisibility. She finds a spot out of sight from most people and watches Lord Brimwell, trying to formulate an organic way to ask him the question Cordelia laid out for her. 

“Miss Baker?” A man’s voice calls out behind her, and Annette slowly turns to find Simon standing a few feet away. 

“Deacon Billings,” she mutters. “Why are-,” she stops herself, placing a more polite version of her question onto her lips instead. “How did you secure an invitation to an event such as this?”

“It’s a day of veneration for St. Windsor,” he answers cordially. “The Hastings family requested for Father Thomas to be in attendance… but, as you can imagine, he wasn’t feeling up to the task. I was sent in his stead.” Simon smiles warmly. “I return the question to you, I wasn’t expecting to see you here, though it’s a welcome surprise.” 

“Here on orders from my owner,” she answers simply. 

“Cordelia Jones, if I recall correctly.” 

“I imagine Sister Pullwater told you,” Annette scowls. “Regardless, I must be goin-,”

“Would you care to dance?” 

“Pardon?” Annette coughs. 

“I should like the honor of dancing with you,” his eyes twinkle. “I assure you I am a surprisingly nimble partner.” 

Annette restrains a smirk. “I would expect nothing less. Unfortunately, however, I don’t believe the dance floor is reserved for a collar.” She taps a finger on the band around her neck. 

“I don’t mind,” he inclines his head. “In many ways, I imagine we’re all collars of God, are we not?” 

Her eyes flick up to the white band around his neck, tucked into his black, buttoned shirt. “I suppose you would know.” She’s quiet for a moment, then adds, “I’d rather not dance, if it’s all the same to you, Deacon.” 

“Simon,” he nudges gently.

“Simon,” she repeats. “I should take my leave.” 

She moves to take a step away, but Simon shifts to block her path. It’s not threatening, which is a relief, though his insistence is frustrating. 

“Might I speak with you some more, Miss Baker?” 

She closes her eyes and forces herself to remain calm. “Very well,” she looks back at him, attempting to hide her frustration. 

“I don’t think you’re a bad person,” he upholds, his face flushing with a kind innocence. “I believe Sister Pullwater has been too harsh with you.” 

“It’s in her nature,” Annette dismisses. “If she’s too kind for too long, I suspect she might spontaneously combust.”

Simon laughs. “She did mention you were clever with your words.” 

“I’m sure ‘clever’ is her word for it.” 

“Not at all,” he shakes his head, grinning. “I believe the direct phrasing was, ‘belligerent and antagonistic.’ However, I could tell she meant to compliment your wit, as I would now like to echo. You look lovely tonight, by the way.” 

Annette glances down over her outfit, wishing there was some way to loosen the corset further than she had already done. “I’m not quite sure it’s within the dress code of the evening’s festivities.” 

“Yours is a beauty that requires no dress code,” he flatters, though his face flashes pink a beat later. “Not that I am implying you should remove your clothes.”

“Quite forward, don’t you think, Deacon? What would God think of such behavior?” She revels in his fretting for a moment longer, enjoying how easy it was to best him in wordplay. “Good evening.” 

“You’re not bad,” he continues, halting her departure once more. “Or wicked, or hopeless or any of those horrible misnomers.” 

“Truly revelatory, Deacon,” she grumbles. 

“You simply require structure for your life,” Simon proscribes. He talks with his hands a great deal, and it’s difficult not to watch them rather than his face. “With the right home and right partnership, I truly believe you would gleefully abandon your sinful nature. It was quite true for me once I set out upon my calling.” 

“And what was your great sin, Deacon?” 

He clears his throat. “Tardiness.” 

Annette chokes back a cackle, burying it behind a serious expression when she realizes he’s not joking. “You must have struggled so much,” she eeks out. 

“What is a man if not his ability to maintain commitments?” He continues, his face contorting importantly. “What deceit was I allowing in my heart by refusing to obey the noble laws of punctuality? It was my calling to the church that truly set my heart right in this matter.” 

“I’m glad you’ve returned to the path of righteousness,” she says quietly, carefully mocking him. “There have been many who’ve fallen away from God’s grace by arriving late to his call.”

He smiles excitedly. “Exactly! And I would be honored if my example could provide inspiration for you with your… ahem… uh…”

“Lesbianism?” Annette offers quietly. 

His eyes dart around the room nervously, anxious to ensure no one overheard her. “It can be overcome, I am sure of it, Miss Baker.” 

“I’ll take it under advisement,” she rolls her eyes. “Good evening, Deacon.” 

“Simon,” he offers once more. 

“Good evening,” she strolls away. 

Simon finally relents, allowing her to walk away unhindered. She moves without a destination, simply attempting to put a reasonable amount of distance between the two of them with the hopes that it might discourage further interaction. Her head remains on a swivel, trying to relocate Lord Brimwell once more without much success. She grumbles to herself, scanning the scene for Cordelia instead, wondering if she might be able to point Annette back to Brimwell. 

“Well, aren’t you the perfect scandal for this evening, dear?” A voice whispers from behind her, and an excited flush races through Annette’s body. 

“Lady Deveroux,” she smiles, pushing away the mild tremor of fear at being associated with her outside of the Fleeting Faery. But Samantha had approached her, how could she be faulted for returning the attention?

Annette turns to face her, but Samantha’s voice halts her. “Don’t turn around,” she orders, “I’d rather not spoil the image of you witnessing my dress just yet, dear. I want to savor that moment.” 

“It would be quite awkward to speak without facing one another, don’t you think?” 

“Nonsense, appear casual. I am looking away from you as though we know nothing about one another.” 

“I’ve been thinking about you,” Annette fights the blush on her face unsuccessfully, dropping her voice to a whisper. “Especially at night… in my bed.” 

Darling…” Samantha purrs. “You’ve crossed into my mind in amorous moments as well. You must be quite enraptured, to speak to me in such a way.” 

“Yes,” she exhales, trying to push away the smile gracing her lips. 

“Your owner is quite the talk of the evening,” Samantha reports, shifting to a less treacherous topic. “I daresay her appearance has caused a bit of a stir.” 

“She’s not well-liked by her fellow gentry, is she?” 

Fellow?” Samantha giggles. 

“She’s nobility, is she not?” 

Samantha laughs again, slightly louder. “Oh, you’re serious,” she realizes after a moment. “No, no she’s not nobility.” 

“She said her father was Lord Hastings. This is his party, isn’t it?”

“Her father might be Lord Hastings, but her mother… not quite so distinguished,” Samantha recounts. “The worst kept secret of the family. Everyone knows.” 

“She’s illegitimate,” Annette summarizes.  

“Unfortunate bastard,” Samantha confirms, “In the truest sense of the word.” 

“How did she get invited, then?” 

“Everyone knows, dear,” she explains, a mild insistence in her voice. 

Annette furrows her brow, “All the more reason to keep her at a distance, I would think.”

Samantha’s light and cascading laugh sounds out once again. “I do adore the ways your mind is so detached from these games, Annie. Your innocence is delightful. She’s invited by anyone who dislikes Lord Hastings, like an unfavorable party trick.” 

Annette finally catches sight of Cordelia herself and is surprised to find her carefully moving around the dance floor with an unknown man. She’s less surprised to find that Cordelia is leading. 

“Who’s she dancing with?” Annette asks, a little suspicious. 

“Her brother,” Samantha replies sweetly. “Well, half-brother.” 

“I didn’t realize she had siblings.”

“That’s Martin,” Samantha points subtly at the dance partner, “the youngest. He’s sweet and free-spirited, and has no issue in associating with her.” 

“Clearly,” Annette watches as Martin allows Cordelia to dip him. 

Samantha carefully points at another man on the sidelines across from them, frowning as he watches the spectacle unfold. “And there’s the older brother, Alistair. He finds Cordelia quite repugnant, though mostly because she presents a threat to his inheritance. And of course because of her general manners.” 

“How does she threaten his inheritance?” Annette scowls. 

“She’s the oldest of the bunch.” 

“I thought that women couldn’t inherit?” 

“She’s arrived in that same tuxedo to every event she’s been invited to for the last five years,” Samantha explains, her voice clearly enjoying the gossip at hand. “I think everyone is worried she might declare herself a twice-born man and muscle in.”

“They’d allow that?” 

“Certainly not, though no one is enthusiastic to test it. Alistair least of all.”  

The song completes and Cordelia takes a hearty bow, laughing and smiling alongside Martin, who seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. She gazes about the room and eventually sees Annette, waving to her and excitedly strolling towards her. Annette panics briefly, worried about her association with Samantha, only to realize that Samantha had already slipped away back into the crowd. 

“Annette,” Cordelia chirps happily. “I’d like you to meet my brother.” 

“Good evening,” Annette curtsies politely. 

Martin shares Cordelia’s dark hair, and it flows above his head in a glorious swoop. His face wears prominent laugh lines, and he walks like a man without any cares in the world. 

“Lovely to meet you,” he flashes a marvelous grin. “Wonderful to meet the woman tasked with keeping my horrendous sister functional.” 

“It takes great patience,” Annette smiles back. 

“I can’t make it too easy on her, can I?” Cordelia jokes, tucking her hands into her pockets and rocking across the balls of her feet. 

“You’re a talented dancer,” Annette says to Martin. 

“You must’ve been watching some other sorry fool,” his eyes light up, “I am simply adept at following.” He gently bumps his shoulder against Cordelia. 

“How are the fish, Annette?” Cordelia ignores him. 

“I’ve been distracted by the task of discovering your pedigree,” she deflects. 

“And?” 

“I have a better understanding why some find the question humorous.”

Cordelia’s brows lower seriously. “And do you share their humor?” 

“I’m sure the joke soars entirely over my person,” Annette inclines her head. “I’ve lost track of Lord Brimwell.” 

“Lord Brimwell?” Martin furrows his brow, though his grin remains. “Whatever could you want with that surly gent?” 

“Miss Jones has tasked me with enquiring his opinions of fish.”

Martin laughs, a few loud barks that fill the space around them. “Is this what your work has devolved into, ‘Delia? Are you retiring from murders and moving on to tabloid research?” 

“You would be the first to know if I had,” Cordelia springs back. Her head swivels around, scanning the crowd. “He’s retreated to the hor d'oeuvres table, Miss Baker.” 

“And am I to simply stroll up, gather his attention, and proudly ask, ‘What might be your opinions on fish, my Lord?’” Annette folds her arms across her chest and shifts her weight off of her injured ankle. 

“I’ll leave the task to your interpretation-,”

“Inform him you are seeking out new fishing destinations for your owner,” Martin interrupts helpfully. “He’ll likely go on for some time once you do.” 

“Is it better or worse for him to know that my owner is the notorious Cordelia Jones?” She smiles back, appreciative. 

“Certainly worse,” Martin nods. 

“I do believe it could add a desirable additional challenge to the task, Annette,” Cordelia offers, only for Martin to wave her comment away. 

“Inform Lord Brimwell that you’re a roundabout ask from Sir Penton.” 

“Martin!” Cordelia complains. 

“Sir Penton?” Annette pips up. 

Martin turns to Cordelia, “Must everything be some grand trial for you and yours, dear Sister?” 

“What is life but a challenge?” 

Martin scoffs playfully. “Simply imply the name Sir Penton, Miss Baker, I’m sure that Brimwell will be most enthusiastic to share his thoughts afterwards.” 

“Why, thank you, Lord Hastings,” Annette cutsies, directing a proud smile at Cordelia. “I’ll be off, then.” 

Without waiting for another word, Annette drifts through the crowd, carefully maneuvering her way around the edge of the dance floor as another song begins and draws guests into its center. She passes beyond a seemingly endless amount of gossip, hushed negotiation, and restrained flirtations, and is amazed at how similar it feels to some church crowds. Everyone knew that everyone was feeling a specific way, but no one was allowed to voice their true thoughts. In the church however, the mask worn to hide oneself was piety, whereas here it was propriety. 

She successfully weaves her way over to Lord Brimwell, watching him for a moment as he shovels a plate of canape into his mouth with gusto. He hunches over the food and eats quickly, with the air of a man attempting to consume as much as possible before his wife might inevitably scold him for such gluttony. She takes a breath and steels her courage, slowly striding up to him with a warm and fake smile upon her face. 

“Pardon me,” she chips. “Lord Brimwell?” 

“Yes?” He straightens his back, turning to face her with crumbs around his mouth. He scowls upon noticing her collar. “What do you want?” 

“Apologies for the interruption, my Lord,” she inclines her head deferentially. “I have been told you are the man to speak to regarding locating a suitable destination for fishing for my owner. You’ve come with high praise for your distinguished expertise on the subject.” 

“Oh,” his face softens. His ears peek up, “Fishing, did you say?” 

“Indeed, my Lord,” she nods again, keeping her polite smile in place. She lowers her voice and leans in slightly, “Sir Penton is quite interested to know where the best spots might be.” 

“You’ve been sent by Sir Penton?” His interest piques once more. “I didn’t realize he had acquired a new collar.”

“I shouldn’t say, my Lord,” she feigns courtesy. 

“Well then,” he clears his throat, looking as though to prepare a grand and highly educated lecture on the subject. When he speaks again, his voice is proud and confident. “Do be sure to inform him not to waste his time upon the Fennes river - even upstream it has become vile and riddled with all manners of distasteful persons. However, the tributary into Lake Pelgar is very active this season.” 

“Active with what sort, my Lord?” She asks, unsure of what information in particular she should be gleaning. “Might it be filled with… flatfish?” She guesses.

“Oh, not in the slightest. If Sir Penton is seeking flatfish he would be best informed to visit the upper mill race around Brinchester and Avet.” 

“Apologies for my lack of understanding.” 

“Not at all,” he shakes his head knowingly. “I’d not expect an unspecialized collar to know the ins and outs of sport fishing. Lake Pelgar is best known for a steady supply of Bass.” 

“Oh, very good, my Lord.” 

Lord Brimwell continues excitedly, quickly building up steam. “Do be sure to report to him likewise that both Straton Hull and Embar-upon-Dow are really overfished this season, and he’ll likely not find much joys in either. However, there’s a lovely hidden spot around Turnbull that also has wonderful quail hunting as well. A true hidden gem, to be sure.” 

“Indeed?” She tilts her head, trying to seem interested. “I’ll be sure to pass along that recommendation without a doubt.” She thinks quickly, trying to deduce what information Cordelia might specifically want her to extract. She scrambles to consider their connections and timidly asks, “Does Trentchton Hall have much fishing? With you being so keen I imagine it must be well supplied.” 

Lord Brimwells face sullens and quickly takes on a sour expression. For a moment, Annette feels fearful to have committed an unknown error, but he simply says, “It will once more, if I am to have any reasonability in this world.” 

“My Lord?”

Brimwell pauses and glances around the room with a disgruntled look. When he returns his focus to her, he speaks as though deciding that he has employed enough restraint in his speech up until this moment, and has finally found a suitably unimportant enough vessel with which to speak freely. “My property has been spoilt by an unlawful attempt to split it half ways with a railroad. The matter has been recently resolved, however, and I am enthusiastic for my land to be properly restored.” 

“I am sorry to hear that it has been wronged so,” Annette nods, carefully noting his reaction and considering it against the letter she and Cordelia had read. She wonders if he could be the Brimwell who had actually written it. 

“Nonetheless, I hope my recommendations for Sir Penton serve him well,” Brimwell nods. “Good evening.” 

“Good evening,” she curtsies, allowing him to walk away, canapes in tow. She works her way back through the crowd, seeking after Cordelia to report back her success. Cordelia, however, has once again disappeared into the crowd, and Annette is only able to find Martin. She slowly strides towards him, assuming he would know where she had departed to. 

“Lord Hastings,” she greets, bowing slightly. “Have you seen where Miss Jones has gone off to?” 

Martin turns, smiling. “She was horribly secretive in revealing her destination.” 

“A common quirk of hers,” Annette sighs. “Thank you for the help, by the way. Your advice for dealing with Lord Brimwell was quite effective.” 

“Oh, he’s the worst, isn’t he?” Martin smirks. 

“He was pleasant enough.” 

“But do you see the way he eats canapes?” The brother grimaces. “Ghastly in the highest order.” 

Annette hides her frown; Brimwell’s manners seemed rushed, but not particularly distasteful. “I’ll defer to your judgment.” 

“I’m quite serious, if you continue to-,” 

“Lord Hastings,” a voice interrupts, “Good to see you once again. Please pass my compliments along to your mother for arranging such a lovely gala.” 

Annette turns and feels her heart skip and face flush brightly. Samantha steps closer, smiling at Martin with her usual radiance and flicking her eyes mischievously over to Annette. Annette’s mouth grows dry as she gazes over Samantha’s dress; it’s a long, silky scarlet ballgown that shimmers with every glint of light that grazes over it. The sleeves fall to her wrists as though to imply modesty, despite the fact that at first glance, the dress is entirely shoulderless. A closer look reveals that the dress does in fact have typical shoulder straps, but they are made with a sheer fabric that is scandalously close to Samantha’s skin tone. A dashing ruby necklace dangles from a golden chain. 

“I’ll be sure to send along your regards, Lady Deveroux,” Martin nods cordially, kissing her extended hand. 

“Who’s your new collar?” She asks, her eyes drinking up Annette’s enraptured response and pretending unfamiliarity. 

“Not mine,” Martin replies. “But my sisters’.”

“She belongs to Miss Jones? I wasn’t aware the detective was doing so well for herself,” Samantha remarks, allowing her gaze to linger on Annette’s lips. 

“A pleasure to meet you,” Annette utters at last, stumbling into a nervous curtsy, while her heart dances rapidly in her chest. 

“She’s quite well,” Martin declares, a twinge of defensiveness in his voice. It’s sweet to see his protectiveness of Cordelia’s reputation. “And Miss Baker is a well-regarded addition into her household.” 

“Well, I’m sure she is,” Samantha agrees. 

“How is the Rear Admiral?” He asks, launching into polite conversation. 

“Well enough,” the noblewoman grabs a drink from a passing waiter, taking a comfortable sip of champagne. “I’m not sure where he’s run off to this evening,” she adds, watching for Annette’s reaction to the detail. “Though he’s often away for far longer than I should like at a ball. Who is a married woman to dance with otherwise?”

“Rear Admiral?” Annette asks, wondering if Samantha was actually implying what Annette thought she was implying. 

“Her husband, Miss Baker,” Martin supplies. “He’s been recently promoted, as I am sure has been thoroughly exciting for his estate.” 

“Indeed,” Samantha agrees. She flashes a surprised frown a moment later and throws a hand to her abdomen. “Apologies.” 

“Are you alright?”

“I’m sure it’s-,” she interrupts herself, wincing. 

“Lady Deveroux?” 

“Lord Hastings,” Samantha straightens her back, putting on a brave face. “Would you be so kind as to allow me to borrow your sister’s collar for a moment? I’m afraid I’m having my… ahem… womanly difficulties.” 

Martin’s face grows pale and he coughs out, “Y-yes, of course. M-miss Baker, if you’d be so kind as to assist with…” 

“At once, Lord Hastings, I shall take care of it,” Annette saves him. Martin looks relieved and quickly makes his departure. “Marvelous how effective that ploy is,” she muses after he steps away.

Samantha’s expression changes as soon as he leaves, and she tilts her chin proudly at Annette, dropping her voice to a whisper. “You want to fuck me in this dress, don’t you?” 

God, yes,” Annette exhales quickly, her voice replying without any direction from her mind. Her eyes search around for Cordelia once again, concerned she might be secretly overhearing them.

“Must you be leaving so soon?” She notices Annette’s worry, a firm pout spreading onto her lips. 

“I… I’d rather not bring trouble upon either of us.” 

“I believe I’m particularly interested in trouble tonight…” 

Annette swallows, feeling her words fail her. Cordelia, like Admiral Deveroux, has a talent for disappearing for extended periods of time. And Annette had already completed her assigned tasks for the evening… Samantha passes the drink from her hands into Annette’s. 

“Take a sip,” she commands. “For your nerves.” 

Annette obeys, taking a long sip of the champagne. She chokes it down, feeling as though her ability to drink had suddenly been forgotten. It’s difficult to even think as Samantha’s eyes wash over her, sending a far too consuming rush of need across her skin.

“You’ve been thinking about me each and every night,” Samantha purrs, watching every tiny expression upon Annette’s face. 

“I’m not sure I said ‘every-’”

“Finish that sentence and see if my feelings remain intact,” she threatens playfully. 

Annette lowers her head and blushes. “I suppose it is every night.” 

“Take another sip,” Samantha orders. 

Annette nods, tilting the glass and allowing it to temper the frightful jitters inside her body. It’s impossible to remain calm in her presence, Annette quickly realizes. Samantha was in her element, and in that dress, with her stare constantly peering through Annette’s defenses, she’s frightened to realize that she’s unable to resist her charms. There’s simply too much of herself caught up in the high of her attention to step away.

“Spill it on my dress.” 

“P-pardon?” Annette coughs, a dribble of champagne trickling down her chin. 

“Spill it upon my dress.” 

Annette glances around nervously. “Are you sure that’s a wise-,”

“Spill… it… on… my… dress…” 

They lock eyes with one another, and Annette can clearly see the deliberation within Samantha’s thoughts. This was happening, Annette realizes and accepts. All concerns of Cordelia or social politic or consequences melt away into the icey blue pools of Samantha’s eyes. A timid side of Annette’s mind, the only part allowed to consider repercussions, vaguely muses that so long as they returned promptly, they could easily escape the ire of the crowd. No one would notice the disappearance of an unrecognizable collar. 

She steps forward with a fake imbalance and trips, pouring out the contents of her glass upon Samantha and gazing on in horror. Samantha flashes a quick mischievous smile, then leaps back in shock and gasps with the highest offense she could summon. Annette draws herself into the act as well, allowing a terrified expression to overtake her face. She scrambles, making as though to assist Samantha with damage control of the spill, only for the noblewoman to swat her hands away. 

“How dare you!” Samantha shrieks, drawing the attention of the nearest crowd. As the surrounding nobles slowly realize what transpired, Annette feels their looks of consternation and distress pour over her. 

“My l-lady,” Annette croaks, bowing with deferential fear. “I’m so s-sorry!” 

“Sorry? Sorry!? I demand a true apology!” 

“Miss, please, it was a mist-

Another noble steps forward, taking the glass from Annette’s hands and staring her down angrily. For a brief moment, Annette worries for the consequences of Samantha’s ploy, but a quick glance from the woman settles her nerves. 

“Lady Deveroux, do you require an-,” the nobleman asks, only for Samantha to angrily wave him away. 

“”I’m quite alright, Lord Hemming,” she cuts, glaring at Annette with a punitive fury. She snatches Annette’s wrist, gripping it tightly. “This wretched girl will assist me in fixing her error.” 

“Of c-course, Miss,” Annette nods desperately. 

“Have you any understanding of what a dress such as this costs?” Samantha scolds, beginning to drag Annette away from the main room and into a side hallway. “I should have your head for this!” 

“I’m so sorry!” 

“Who is your owner? I demand to speak with them regarding compensation for this-,” she cuts her sentence off as the two of them duck behind the nearest doorway, shutting the door after them. Samantha’s face softens, and her grip on Annette’s wrist drops into a casual hand-hold. “A believable performance, dear.” 

“How expensive is that dress? Should I be worried about-,” 

Samantha interrupts her with a forceful kiss. When she breaks away, she pulls Annette down the hallway with her, descending further and further from the party. “Have I not remarked that you are worth such costs to me?” 

Annette blushes, still feeling the excited jitters of the kiss. “I suppose I find it difficult to believe that I am worth such liabilities.” 

“I’m sure you will be able to find some method of repayment, dear,” she smirks. “Come along, I discovered a suitable location for us earlier.” 

She pulls Annette through a doorway and into a second hallway, stopping in the middle of the walkway and beaming. Staring at Samantha and seeing the amorous look in her eyes, it’s difficult for Annette not to believe that she must be a remarkably beautiful woman indeed. If Samantha found her this desirable, how could anyone deny that she was to be admired? 

“Kiss me,” Annette pleads, resting her back against the nearest wall and letting her face wash with adoration. 

“As though you needed to ask,” Samantha smirks. She launches her body against Annette's, shoving her deeper into the wall and kissing her with a desperate force. Unlike previous encounters with the noblewoman, her kiss is ravenous and driven, her hands touching her hips as though she wanted to rip Annette’s clothes from her. Annette is mildly embarrassed to find the idea enticing. 

Samantha pulls back, throwing a hand to Annette’s chest to keep her pinned. “Apologies for the rush, dear, but I’m afraid our time is limited.” 

“Nonsense,” Annette sighs, her heartbeat racing in her chest. She covers Samantha’s hand with her own. “It’s not like you need to do much to warm me up.” 

The woman steps forward, beaming excitedly. The back of her free hand strokes Annette’s cheek and she can feel the sharp edges of her wedding ring gently tug against her soft skin. “Widen your stance,” she orders. 

Annette flushes, opening her thighs and shifting her feet over a few steps. Samantha’s hand on her dress drops down to Annette’s hips and lays flat against her clit, straining against the lining of her panties. She closes her eyes to savor the touch, gently increasing in pressure as Samantha’s hand continues brushing along her face. 

“I adore the little faces you make, Annette,” she whispers. “So deliciously pained, so full of need.” 

Annette nods, focusing on the feeling of her delicate fingers locating the sides of her shaft and gripping it with an aggravating lightness. She pushes her hips forward into Samantha’s control and is embarrassed by the quiet, whimpering moan that escapes her lips. When she opens her eyes again, she can feel her clit harden even more at the sight of the radiant satisfaction on Samantha’s face. 

“I have a task for you, my dear,” Samantha declares, dropping down to the floor briefly to grab the hem of Annette’s skirt. She pulls it up, lifting the dress enough to improve her access, and tucks the fabric into Annette’s hand. “Keep this out of my way, won’t you?”

Annette nods, her skin growing hotter and hotter with each passing second. Samantha then reaches underneath her own skirt, pulling out a small, flat tin that must surely have been tucked into her own negligee for safekeeping. She opens it, revealing a smooth and fragrant cream, lifting it to Annette’s nose to smell. It’s fresh and sweet; the scent of lavender and rose. 

“Lotion?” Annette cocks her head.

“For my dry forearms,” Samantha explains. “But it has other notable uses for this moment.” She smiles, displaying her left hand in front of Annette’s face, a glistening ring flashing in the light. “Do you like my ring, dear?”

“It’s stunning,” Annette replies. It’s a fantastical golden band with an enormous gemstone in the center, easily the largest diamond Annette has ever seen, not that there was much competition for the title.

“Revier gave it to me for our wedding. I believe it’s actually a family heirloom of some sort, though how he managed such a priceless artifact I’ll never know,” she slips it off of her ring finger, bringing it closer to Annette’s face. “I never bring it to the Faery, too much unwanted attention. Hold it for me, will you?” 

Annette lifts her free hand to retrieve it, but Samantha clicks her tongue and shakes her head. “Open wide,” she commands, opening her own mouth to guide Annette. 

Confused, Annette obeys, timidly pulling her lips apart for the woman. Samantha brings the ring forward and sets the band horizontally between her teeth, forcing Annette to carefully bite down onto it to keep it safely in place. 

“Good girl,” Samantha coos. She returns to the tin of lotion, gathering a large dollop of cream onto the finger that had just recently been occupied by her ring. The hand lowers to Annette’s panties, carefully pulling them down and sliding between her inner thighs. Annette feels her clit tighten as Samantha’s fingertip gently presses down onto the rim of her asshole. 

Annette sighs excitedly, the sound constrained by her teeth holding onto the ring as it exits her mouth. She locks eyes with Samantha, who drinks up every desperate twitch and look of delight on Annette’s face. 

“Keep a careful grasp,” she coaches, glancing at the ring in her mouth, “that’s my marriage you’re holding between your teeth. What would Revier think if I lost it?” 

Annette attempts to nod in understanding, only to be interrupted by the electrifying feeling of Samantha’s finger slowly pushing inside of her. She closes her eyes and feels a satisfying groan roll within her chest, feeling a wave of fullness warm her hips and bottom. Samantha smirks and gives her no reprieve, suddenly adding her middle finger to join the first. It pulls a surprisingly loud gasp from Annette’s lips, and she feels her focus narrow as the sensation of Samantha's fingers takes control.

Annette pushes her back harder into the wall, feeling herself squirm as Samantha begins sliding her fingers in and out of her, each knuckle carefully stretching her tender hole. Her fingertips hook slightly, and at the apex of their movement they push down against the soft button of her prostate, circling around it for a brief moment before retreating. Annette sighs rapturously, feeling a shiver of pleasure course through her with each push. 

Samantha leans forward, placing a long and wet string of kisses along Annette’s neck and collarbone, savoring her restrained, panting breaths. “I wish you belonged to me,” she purrs, “I would play with you for hours and hours just to watch your face contort with delight like so.” 

She whimpers in response, feeling herself wish the reality could be true. Annette would do anything to make that possibility a reality, to get to have unhindered access and privacy with Samanatha. 

“I’d commission a portrait of this exact moment,” Samantha promises as Annette squirms delightedly. “Your beautiful face in delicious pain, the ring between your teeth… Imagine the look on the artist’s face.” 

Annette laughs and it nearly sends the ring plummeting from her mouth. She bites down harder and stifles the giggle, focusing once more on the erotic feeling of Samantha’s fingers. 

“Careful…” 

Annette nods, feeling her legs tremble as the pleasure builds. Samantha increases her speed, and with the extra force, her fingers push deeper and deeper inside, making Annette moan with each thrust. She tries to keep them quiet, anxiously constraining each sound and feeling a pressure build in her chest. 

“I’d tell you to cry out my name…” Samantha teases, “... but it seems your lips are a bit preoccupied.”

Samantha’s free hand drops down to caress Annette’s aching clit, and she’s unable to control the next rumbling moan, letting it bounce around the empty hallway. She feels it stiffen eagerly at Samantha’s touch, and a desperate pressure consumes her as she wishes for release. Samantha’s thumb circles around the tip, using fluid dribbling out to lubricate her movements and making Annette let out a heavenly sigh. 

“Poor girl,” she continues, loving the way Annette soaks up her every word, “with how desperate you are it makes me think that Miss Jones isn’t properly caring for her collar’s needs… I assure you would be much more properly cared for in my home.” 

Annette falls deeper into the wall, her mind relinquishing its control to Samantha’s skillful touches. She opens her eyes and stares at the woman, unable to comprehend anything other than the feeling of building pleasure inside and a sense of unending devotion to its source. She tightens her bite on the ring, resolving to keep it entirely steady. 

Samantha’s fingers thrust as far inside of her as they can go, lifting Annette to the tips of her toes as they press against her sweet spot, making her quiver with delight. The noblewoman increases the speed of her hand stroking Annette’s clit as she does, and Annette feels her head roll backwards into the wall, drunk on the explosive pleasure inside. Her breath heaves in her chest, unable to get enough air to allow her comfort, and she focuses instead on the heavenly sensations. 

“We’ll need to fix that lapse in her care, won’t we?” Samantha torments happily, thrilled to see Annette have such a strong reaction. Annette nods quickly. “We only have so much time before we’ll need to reappear in the party… it’d be a shame if you didn’t get your release.”

Annette whimpers frightfully, and it's exactly the reaction Samantha was hoping for. She enthusiastically drinks up the necessity in Annette’s expression, immediately returning to the task of bringing her closer and closer to her finish. Annette fully succumbs to the feeling of Samantha’s control, trusting the urgency in her hips to her care. 

“I can’t wait to see how you’ll repay me when next we get a chance to-,” Samantha whispers salaciously, only to be suddenly interrupted by the sound of the hallway door swinging open. 

Annette’s heart drops and for a moment it feels as though the bottom of the earth falls out from underneath her. The door slams closed as the figure steps inside, one hand raised to cover his eyes and the other held out in warning. 

“Please, Miss Baker! Relent from such wrongdoing!” He cries out, unable to gaze upon the scene. 

Annette bangs her head against the wall in frustration, cursing her luck that of all the people to catch them in the act it had to be the Deacon. Samantha, for her part, gives Annette hardly any reprieve, continuing to stroke her slowly as Simon creeps forward, carefully averting his eyes. 

“It is not too late, Miss Baker,” Simon pleads, “Forgiveness needs only but a moment of repentance to take hold and transform your ways!”

“Friend of yours?” Samantha mutters. Annette tries to remove herself from Samantha’s grasp, but the woman hooks her fingers onto the tiny button inside of Annette and holds her in place without mercy. Annette despises the frightful part of her that grows more excited by the control she wields. 

“As the Lord God decrees, ‘Neither do I condemn thee,’” Simon continues, slowly making his way forward. “‘Go and sin no more!’”

“How rude to gaze upon women in such a state,” Samantha quips. “To invade our privacy so is surely a great sin.” She returns her attention to Annette, who is amazed by either Samantha’s confidence or arrogance to not be afraid at this moment. 

Simon stops his approach about ten feet away from them, straightening his stance and declaring, “Annette, I implore you, is this not an invitation to instead seek out a new path? Your current trajectory is leading you into treacherous waters.” 

A constrained moan leaves Annette’s lips as Samantha continues her motions, and she flushes with embarrassment. She attempts to remove the ring from her mouth and return it to Samantha but the noblewoman blocks her, keeping her locked in place to experience the pleasure of her touch. At the noise, Simon peeks his eyes out to witness the scene at hand, his face flushing bright pink as he looks upon Annette’s predicament. 

“Like what you see, Father?” Samantha teases, encouraging him to watch as her hand softly strokes Annette’s tense member. “I have no shortage of favor to provide, should you wish to step closer. I assure you, your silence on the matter could entitle you to a great deal of our favor…” 

“‘Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial,’” Simon mutters to himself, sneaking another look at Annette squirming underneath Samantha’s touch. “I seek no reward, and no condemnation,” he rebuts nervously. “‘Brothers and Sisters, if one is caught amongst sin, you who live by the Spirit should gently restore them.’”

Annette tries to remove the ring again to speak in her defense, but is once again prevented by Samantha, who seems to be enjoying her dilemma. 

“Lady Deveroux,” Simon calls out, “allow me to speak with Miss Baker for a moment, and I shall not report your transgressions to any power save God. Allow me this opportunity to set her heart right on the matter.” 

Annette locks eyes with Samantha, pleading with her. As much as she wishes to continue, Annette feels her fear take hold of her. Samantha might have the power and charms to escape retribution in this moment, but if Simon reports this event to Pullwater… Annette can hardly imagine the fallout. Samantha takes pity and relents, removing her hands from Annette and stepping away. Annette collapses breathlessly into the wall behind her, feeling her body resent the denied climax. Samantha retrieves the ring from Annette’s teeth, kissing her quickly before she turns and strolls down the hall opposite of Simon, disappointed.

“You followed me?” Annette croaks accusingly, steadying her breath and glaring at Simon with an exasperated frustration. She lowers her skirt and fixes her dress, still feeling the shivers of need course through her legs.  

“I witnessed the unfortunate mishap with Lady Deveroux’s dress,” he explains, finally looking at her now that he notices her modesty return. “I worried for your temptation, and that being alone with a woman such as Lady Deveroux would be too much for you to resist.” 

Annette scowls. She’s frustrated to admit that he wasn’t entirely wrong; Samantha’s charms had been too much for her to overcome. “And yet you’re concerned only for the state of my soul, not Lady Deveroux?” She looks down the hall where Samantha had disappeared.

“Sister Pullwater has-,”

Annette groans, dropping her voice lower. “Are you going to report me to her? Or to Miss Jones?”

“I do not believe you require a punitive solution, Miss Baker,” his voice is full of sympathy and obnoxious sincerity. “As we spoke earlier, I expect that all you require is the proper structure.” 

“Oh, God,” Annette feels her skin crawl. “You’re going to force me to marry you.”

“Nonsense,” Simon shakes his head, mildly offended by the suggestion. “As I have already said, I do not wish you to be a coerced wife. I beg of you to open your heart and mind to see that this is what your soul needs to be set upon a righteous path.”

Annette feels her mind racing, anxious to discover some form of escape. She needs some form of leverage to maintain his silence, but as she gazes up and down the hallway, embarrassed by what he witnessed, she feels herself come up empty-handed. 

“So, what, you’ve come to rescue me from myself?” 

Simon smiles once more. “I believe I have been led to the exact place needed to save you, Miss Baker.”

She stomachs her pride and forces a pained look upon her face, finally deciding upon a course of action. “I’m so deeply controlled by this vice,” she lies, letting her voice grow weary and desperate. “I’m unsure of how to be free.” 

“I understand, Miss Baker,” Simon nods, his voice dropping innocently. “Temptations of the flesh are amongst the most common to experience, as well as most consuming.”

“How can I be free of it?” She slides down the wall, dropping to her knees and wishing she knew how to cry on command. 

“Trust in the Lord,” Simon affirms. “But it will take time. You have already made the greatest leap in your healing this evening, to step away from sin whilst in the act. It takes great courage to do so.” 

She nods and softly rests her head against the wall, feigning weariness. It takes less effort to pretend than she’d like, she still feels the waves of sensations from Samantha’s touch rock over her. The image of her euphoric face gazing upon Annette’s delight would surely visit her in bed later tonight. She’s furious that Simon had interrupted them. 

“Come visit me after service this Sunday,” he tells her. “We might take a turn about the city together, and perhaps you could see that I might be a most agreeable partner for you in this endeavor.” 

“You… you wish to court me?” 

He blushes, trying to hide his affection. “I see it as my duty, Miss Baker. There is no higher calling than obedience to God’s directions.” 

“...Very well,” Annette mutters. If all she has to do to keep her secret safe is to string Simon along until she can develop a new plan… she could do it. She’s not sure what exactly a plan might entail, but at least she might secure a delay in repercussions. 

“I’m overjoyed!” Simon swings his hands at his side excitedly. “Might we pray, Miss Baker?”

Annette restrains a sigh. “If we must.” 

He kneels down as Annette stares off into the distance towards Samantha’s departure, wondering if she would be able to sneak away to the Fleeting Faery anytime soon. 

 

– – – 

“You’ve been busy this evening,” Cordelia says in the carriage ride home. Annette glares out the window with a look of consternation on her face. “Where did you disappear off to?”

“Where did you?” 

Cordelia smiles. “Fair enough, Annette, I suppose you’ve earned some secrecy. What of Brimwell’s fish?” 

“I have plenty of recommendations of locations for your new hobby, should you desire,” Annette mumbles, feeling her head lightly bounce against the carriage as it rocks along the cobblestones. 

“Come now, that can’t be all you’ve discovered.” 

“From what I gathered,” she continues tiredly, “Mister Bembrook attempted to run a railroad through his property, disrupting Brimwell’s lake in the process.” 

“Do you believe you spoke to the author of the letter?” 

Annette nods slowly, forehead pressed against the window. “I do.” 

“Why?” 

“Something about his attitude,” she mutters. “Unless his sons somehow care about fishing more than him, I’d wager it was him.” 

“May I let you in on an important detail, Miss Baker?” 

“What?” 

“Lord Brimwell has no sons.” 

Annette furrows her brow in confusion for a moment, but then the understanding sets in. Cordelia didn’t need the second half of the letter to identify the writer; if it was a gentleman from Trentchton Hall, the only possibility was Lord Brimwell himself. She sighs with exasperation. 

“And you felt no need to share this with me?” She grumbles. 

Cordelia smiles, free and light. “I didn’t wish to negate your hard work in retrieving the letter.” 

“So instead you forced me to go to a ball? Why?” 

“I am invested in understanding your abilities,” Cordelia answers simply. “I wish to see what you are capable of, Annette.” 

“Why?” 

Cordelia is silent for a long moment. She stares out the window, leaning her elbow against the armrest and resting her head in her palm. She takes a few long breaths, mulling over the proper response. “You intrigue me,” she says softly. 

“And because of your intrigue, I am subject to an endless array of tests?” Annette lets her head drift back, feeling a mild headache set in. 

“Not endless,” Cordelia pips. 

“A small comfort.” 

“You aren’t afraid of me tonight,” the detective announces, her voice filled with a tone that is both sweet and important. She smiles to herself and returns to staring out the window. 

Annette sits in silence as she considers Cordelia’s words, wondering why she so often seemed concerned with whether or not Annette feared her. Something about the lack of fear seems to reassure Cordelia, and with each passing day Annette can feel her comfort increase. For a breath or two, she considers asking about it, though she decides not to. After the frustrations and difficulties of this evening, Annette would rather leave it be. 

Cordelia slowly pulls something out of her pocket, directing Annette’s attention to it. She frowns upon seeing that it's a railroad spike. 

“Why… why do you have that?” Annette asks nervously. 

“I displayed it to Lord Brimwell after you disappeared,” she replies. “He was most displeased to be confronted with it.” 

“So you believe he might be the killer?” 

“I believe that he found it upsetting,” Cordelia answers noncommittally. “You look tired, Annette. Rest up, I’ll have work for you tomorrow.” 

46