Chapter Seven
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Chapter Seven 

 

Annette rouses in her bed to the sound of loud knocking at her door. She sits up suddenly, pulling her heavy eyelids open and feeling her body race with adrenaline. She halts for a breath as the grasping tendrils of sleep fight her efforts to wake. A quick glance to the window outside confirms that the sun has only just arisen, and she grumbles at the early hour. 

A moment later, the door swings open to reveal Cordelia, an impassioned grin splashed across her lips. She strolls a few steps inside, turning to gaze about the room while Annette rubs her eyes and allows the shock to wear off. 

“Good, you’re up,” Cordelia puffs, throwing her hands onto her hips and beaming. 

“Difficult to sleep when you’ve improvised a break-in,” she grumbles. 

“I’ve never really been in here before,” Cordelia muses, her eyes flicking around to soak up the space. “Not since I’ve had you or Penny, anyway.” 

Annette twists her feet towards the ground and rests her head in her hands, massaging the sides of her face. “Perhaps I could arrange a tour at a more respectable hour, Miss Jones?” 

“Come now, I’ve waited for the sun to arise! That’s far more reasonable than I could have been, all things considered,” she rebuts. “Get dressed.” 

Annette yawns powerfully, feeling a stretch in her jaw. “Have you been awake all night?

“I don’t need sleep,” Cordelia confirms. 

“You are tremendously disgruntled when I wake you most mornings,” Annette grumbles. “I’m not sure you can with great confidence consider yourself pleasant to rise.” 

“Get dressed,” Cordelia commands again. 

Annette drops her head down to stare at her nightgown, then rocks her head to the side to stare at the doorway. “Am I to expect supervision as I do so?” 

“Oh,” Cordelia pips. “Right.” She turns around, showing her back to Annette to give her privacy. Annette gripes internally that she didn’t just leave the room, but stands and retrieves a basic dress and shirt from her closet. She throws them on quickly, reveling in the pleasant cool air of the early morning. 

“Now, why have I been so disrupted at this ungodly hour?” 

Cordelia turns around, still grinning delightedly. “I withheld telling you last night after the ball, as you appeared tired and unenthusiastic…” 

“Is this so different from my present state?” Annette deadpans. 

The detective ignores her complaint. “There’s been a fire,” she declares, ending her sentence there as though it supplied all of the necessary detail to continue. 

“A fire…?” Annette sighs. “It’s a very large city, Miss Jones. There’s likely a fire somewhere every day.” 

“It’s more than that, Annette,” Cordelia scoffs, throwing her hands back onto her hips. “Have a little faith in me.” 

“Yes, of course,” Annette restrains the urge to roll her eyes. “And why must I be likewise interested in this specific fire?” 

“Six dead, unknown source, 8th Street Textile Factory.” 

“You believe it’s arson,” Annette deduces. 

“Yes.” 

She pauses, standing from the bed and stretching. Another yawn overtakes her, and when it passes Annette looks at Cordelia sympathetically and says, “We’re already investigating this whole situation with Bembrook’s murder, and we’ve still never determined if there’s a way to hold his company responsible for Henry’s death. It feels rather neglectful of us if we ignore both of those to pursue an arson case that will surely be handled by the crown.” 

Cordelia is quiet for a moment, though her eyes flick around the room excitedly. She tucks her hands behind her back and paces in the tiny room, turning quickly on her heel with every lap. 

“Do you know that feeling, Annette?” 

“Feeling?” She furrows her brow. 

“You know the one, I’m so sure that you do.” 

“Like all humans, I’ve a multitude of feelings. Sleepiness, for example.” 

“Coy,” Cordelia smirks. “Never change, Miss Baker.” 

“I endeavor to remain static, Miss.” 

Cordelia waves away Annette’s snark, returning to a more serious expression, “What did you feel when you stumbled across Lord Brimwell’s letter?” 

“Curiosity, I suppose.” 

“It’s more than that,” Cordelia asserts. “Curiosity doesn’t often drive people to jump from train cars. You felt it, didn’t you? The feeling.” 

Annette doesn’t reply, so Cordelia nods and returns to pacing, excitedly gesturing with her hands as she speaks. “It’s this itch, this bubbling excitement,” she explains. “It’s consuming, all-encompassing. It’s so abundantly necessary.” She runs a hand through her hair and restarts. “My mind is never quiet, Annette. It’s constantly buzzing and speaking and arguing and thinking all at once, all of the time, always. It’s maddening. The only times it’s silent enough to feel peaceful are when I’m boxing, having sex, or feeling the feeling.” 

“I… how does this relate to the fire?” 

“I feel it.” 

“The feeling,” Annette completes. 

“There’s something about the fire that I know is related. I just know it,” Cordelia shakes her head, trying to explain. “It’s not intuition, it’s not guesswork. There’s something in the back of my mind that has detected an anomaly, some sort of clue, and I must uncover it.” 

“How can you know something without knowing it?” 

“You’re the one raised by nuns,” Cordelia rebuts, “you tell me. Perhaps I’m some sort of saint and don’t know it yet.” 

Annette giggles. “If you’re a saint then the rest of us must be holy indeed.” 

“I could be a saint,” Cordelia mutters defensively. 

“I’m quite sure,” Annette smirks. “Does your Saintliness require breakfast before dragging me along to poke around a fire?” 

“Eggs over buttered toast,” the detective replies in a quiet voice. “And tea.” 

 

– – – 

At an initial glance, the 8th Street Textile Factory appears wretchedly dirty and industrial, even discounting the damage from the fire. It’s a four-story brick and iron building with heavy walls and a dark roof, tucked away on the very edge of the factory district of Bellchester. It appears designed as though to blend in with the nearby apartments, but it is far too industrial for its deception to be believable. One of the corners of the building has caved from the fire damage, sending rubble down into the street, and while the rest of the factory is structurally intact, it’s charred and singed. 

Annette pokes around in the rubble as Cordelia argues with the crown investigator at the scene, demanding to be allowed to inspect it. It’s been more than a few minutes since they’ve taken to shouting explicatives at each other, and it seems clear that the two have some form of history together, though its nature is impossible to tell. By Cordelia’s third highly specific insult about his wardrobe Annette is convinced they’ve either been rivals for some time, have some sort of romantic or sexual history, or both. 

“-tweed upon your ass!” Cordelia cries out with a villainous grin. “I’m quite sure that even your undergarments are argyle and so far up your-,” 

“Are you quite finished, Miss Jones?” The investigator grumbles. “I’ve already given you an answer and repeated it until such a point it seems to have lost its meaning. I’ll ask you once more: please leave.” 

Cordelia bounces on her toes, looking much like she might soon test his aptitude in boxing. Annette shakes her head and relents from inspecting the rubble strewn about, walking over and saying, “Perhaps it is best if we leave, Miss Jones.” 

“Absolutely not,” Cordelia declares. 

“Might we have a word?” 

Cordelia scowls at her as though to test her resolve, but eventually gives in. She allows Annette to pull her out of earshot of the investigator. 

“If you are going to scold me-,” Cordelia begins, only to be interrupted by Annette. 

“Let me handle him,” she states. 

“Handle him? Handle him!?” Cordelia lowers her brows, causing tiny disapproving wrinkles to form on her forehead. Her voice drops quieter. “Do you think you could?” 

“He was stealing glances at me the entire time you yelled at him,” Annette recounts. “Yes, I can handle him.” 

“You don’t like doing that. You hated smiling for Bembrook.” 

“If I’m to have any peace in our home from your fretting, you need to get inside and investigate,” she crosses her arms over her chest. “This is preferable.” 

“I’m not fretting,” Cordelia grumbles. Annette raises a knowing eyebrow, daring the detective to double down. Cordelia’s face softens. “Very well, Miss Baker.” 

“Good,” Annette nods, taking a breath and quickly formulating her plan. “Slap me.”

Cordelia’s hand flies through the air and strikes Annette’s cheek far harder than she had anticipated. She’d thought Cordelia would want to question the plan, try to understand why Annette had made the request, and that she might have a moment to steady herself before the impact. Annette doubles over, throwing a hand to the side of her face and breathing heavily, feeling the stinging sensation throb for an agonizing few moments before slowly residing.

“I’ll not be talked to in such a way!” Cordelia shouts, ensuring it’s loud enough that the investigator can hear her. “Take a walk, Miss Baker, and reflect about your words and your place. Your full punishment will be awaiting you at home.” She drops her voice low, barely above a whisper. “I only need fifteen minutes.” 

Annette nods, and Cordelia strolls away, turning a corner and surely devising a strategy to enter the factory from some back entrance. Annette takes a moment longer to recover, then timidly walks over to the investigator. 

“Miss Jones has asked me to apologize on her behalf,” Annette tells him, pretending to hold back tears from the slap. “And that I must apologize for causing you to witness my misbehavior that is unbefitting of my position.” 

“I’ll not accept her apology, if it’s all the same to you,” he replies firmly, glaring at the direction Cordelia had departed to. His face softens as he turns his attention to Annette. “Given her temper, I cannot imagine your behavior was truly unkind. An apology is not necessary, Miss.” 

“Thank you, Mister…” 

“Calgar,” he supplies, inclining his head. 

“Miss Baker,” Annette curtsies in response. 

“I sympathize with your ordeal,” Calgar states, gesturing at her collar and then looking back towards where Cordelia had previously been. “I don’t envy you returning home to face her continued ire.” 

“I thank you for your kindness,” Annette replies, smiling weakly. “She can be quite brutish in these moods.” 

“What punishment might you be awaiting upon your return?” 

“She likes to draw punishments out over time. Sleep deprivation is a favorite of hers,” Annette mutters, wishing she could have stayed in bed a while longer this morning. 

She shifts into polite small talk with Calgar, who seems eager for the distraction. She wonders briefly if he was dreading returning to the sight of the burned bodies inside, and empathizes. Once Annette asks him about his interests and he mentions cricket, Calgar goes on for some time on the subject and it hardly requires any conversational effort on Annette’s part, save for the occasional nod. He’s clearly passionate about it, and while the passion is endearing, Annette can hardly fathom a less interesting subject matter. She’s almost relieved when Cordelia’s boot kicks down the front door from inside the factory and calls out to her. 

“Annette, I require your assistance!” she calls out, gleeful that the door had given way from the force of her kick. 

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Cordeli-,” Calgar begins, ripping his hat off of his head and throwing it to the ground. 

“Coming, Miss Jones!” Annette replies, smiling politely at Calgar. “Could anything be less interesting than cricket?” she mutters to him as she strolls away. 

“I could have you both arrested for trespassing,” he threatens. Cordelia ignores him, snorting and heading back inside. Annette follows her lead, leaving the frustrated investigator behind to accept his defeat. 

Inside, the factory is humid and smokey, and while the fire has long since died out, it’s still uncomfortably warm within. Annette lifts her dress to step over the mangled remains of some machinery that has bent under the heat, following Cordelia up to a small staircase in the back of the room that leads to the second floor. They turn the corner and suddenly Cordelia’s hands fly onto Annette’s face; one hand thrown over her eyes and another on her shoulder. 

“Miss Jones-,”

“You’ll thank me later,” Cordelia says quietly, using her hand on Annette’s shoulder to steer the servant towards a destination. “I can’t fathom you’ll keep your composure at this sight before us.” 

Annette gives in to Cordelia’s direction, scrunching up her nose at the rank smell of burnt machinery, rancid smoke… and scorched flesh. She feels a horrifying tremor shake down her spine, which Cordelia seems to notice, and the detective gently increases the pressure on her grip to comfort her. 

“Lift your leg here,” Cordelia directs, tapping her shoulder. “Wide step.” 

“... and what am I stepping over?” 

Cordelia is quiet for a moment as she guides Annette’s step. “I considered telling you it’s simply a machine. It’s a body. Samuel Yamhill, if I’m not mistaken.” 

Annette gulps back her disgust, stepping past the body and allowing Cordelia to lead her around another corner and down a corridor. “... so you’ve brought me to observe the crime scene but you’ll not allow me to see it? What sort of test is this?” 

“Not a test, Miss Baker,” Cordelia says gently. “I’d rather you not lose your breakfast.” 

“You could have left me outside,” she mutters. 

“I require your assistance with another matter,” the detective answers. “Turn here.” 

They enter a smaller room off of the corridor, where the air is far less rank with the smell of burnt bodies. It seems to be some sort of storage closet, and Cordelia finally removes her hand from Annette’s body. It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darker room, but when she does, Annette gasps at the sight of another body laying against one of the shelves. 

Christ,” Annette coughs, turning away for a moment. “A warning would be appreciated.” 

“Take a look at him,” Cordelia directs. “What do you notice?” 

Annette takes as deep of a breath as the wretched air will allow her and steadies herself. She turns back to study the man’s body, eyes flicking over his form and pushing past the discomfort of once again being so close to death. 

“He isn’t burnt,” Annette observes. 

“Correct.” 

“How did he die, then?” 

“Guess.” 

Annette looks around, noticing that the door seems to have been broken upon entry. The lock remains active, but has been bent from the force of a blow against the door. “Did you do this?” 

“It was locked,” Cordelia shrugs. 

“Hold on,” Annette shakes her head. “You only had fifteen minutes, and rather than studying the obvious deaths in the main room, you instead turned down a side corridor and kicked open a supply closet?” 

“I had a hunch.” 

“That cannot be how a hunch works,” Annette scowls. “There’s no rationality to such a decision.” 

Cordelia stares at Annette for a long moment, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning back into the doorframe. 

“What?” Annette’s eyes flick over her form defensively. 

“Who trained your mind this way?” Cordelia asks casually. “Have you always been so inquisitive?” 

“Miss Jones,” she sighs, pointing a hand down at the body, “there is a man dead before us. Might we focus on that task instead?” 

“None of the investigators I know think the way you do,” Cordelia muses. “They’re all so narrow-minded and clear-cut and overconfident. But you…” 

Annette turns away, returning to the task of studying the body and ignoring her. “Smoke,” she says aloud. “This man died from inhaling too much smoke.” She takes another glance around the room, then strolls out into the hallway. Looking down the corridor opposite from the way they came, Annette notices a door at the end of it, and she strolls down to inspect it. A quick turn of the handle reveals that it’s locked. She considers attempting to kick it open, but decides against it. 

Instead, Annette takes a deep breath and strolls back towards the main room, steeling her resolve for the expected sight of burned bodies. She preemptively locates her feelings of shock and disgust and horror and buries them down, summoning forth a focused neutrality in their place. The initial shock is still upsetting, but she manages to stifle it, turning instead to briefly inspect the corpses. 

Annette’s mind buzzes quickly as she works, and she feels as though her focus is intensified beyond its normal ability. Little details keep popping into her awareness as she looks, and it’s as she’s kneeling down over the final body that a small realization overtakes her. She returns to Cordelia in the supply closet, who remains casually propped up against the doorframe, waiting for her. 

“And what have you noticed, Miss Baker?” 

“You said there were six deaths.” 

“I did,” Cordelia’s voice lingers, excited to see Annette’s mind at work. 

Annette points to the man in front of them. “He is number seven. The crown investigators didn’t find him.” 

“The question remains: how did I find him?”

Annette crosses her arms over her chest, swaying on her feet as she thinks. “The door down the hallway is locked… so this man possibly thought that this room would protect him from the fire… but why didn’t he just return to the main room…?”

“Why indeed?”

“The fire was worse there,” Annette guesses. “Too dangerous to go back?” 

“What else is different about this body?” 

Annette looks him over once more, suddenly noticing the difference in his attire. “He’s in work clothes. The others were in business suits. Why would so many businessmen be in one room in a factory?” 

“A different question, Miss Baker,” Cordelia redirects. “Why would a singular worker be in the factory at night on a Friday?” 

“He wasn’t supposed to be here…” Annette supplies. “So he wasn’t just afraid of the fire, he was afraid of the bosses seeing him?” 

“It’s possible.” 

“So he hid in this closet because it was his only option, and succumbed to the smoke instead of the fire.” Annette paces for a few steps, moving out into the hallway for another moment before stepping back inside. “So that’s how you found him.” 

Cordelia smiles, chuckling to herself. 

“What?” 

“Annette Baker isn’t a Kerish name,” Cordelia recalls. 

Annette groans in frustration. “What does that have to do with anything right now?” 

“Everything,” the detective pushes off of the frame and stands over her. “If Annette Baker can’t be your birth name because you're Kerish and it isn’t… how did I know you were Kerish?” Annette glares at her, confused, so Cordelia continues. “If this man hid in this closet because he wished to escape the fire and his bosses, and we know this was his motivation because we’ve found him and pieced it together…” She leans forward, trailing off to allow Annette to finish the thought. 

“... it still doesn’t explain how you knew he was here,” Annette answers. 

“It’s bigger than that, Annette.” 

“How so?” 

“You’re thinking like I do,” her eyes light up excitedly. 

“I don’t follow.” 

“But you do!” Cordelia steps away, gesturing enthusiastically with her hands. “Well, you don’t. Come to think of it, they’re not entirely the same point at all-”

Miss Jones,” Annette grumbles.

Cordelia stops and grabs Anntte by the shoulders, leaning in to meet her eyes. “The point I wish to capture is this: you understand.” 

“I understand?” 

“You understand.” 

Annette frowns. “I’m not sure that I do.” 

“Oh, but you do.” 

“I don’t.” 

“Don’t you?”

“Stop it!” Annette huffs, storming back into the hallway and leaning her back against the wall. She drops her head into her hands and massages her temples, letting out a long and tired exhale. “Just… just say whatever it is you’re trying to say so we might be done with this place.” 

“Annette,” Cordelia says in a low voice, joining her in the hallway and propping herself up opposite of her. “I… hmm… What am I trying to say?” She thinks aloud. 

“I am out of guesses,” Annette mutters. 

“Here it is,” the detective pips. She lifts her hands, gesturing forward. “You feel the feeling. Or if you don’t, you understand the feeling and why it’s important.” Annette hides behind her hands once again, pushing the hair out of her face, so Cordelia continues. “I’ve never met anyone else who does. Christ, they’re all so static and unaffected and pedantic and tiresome and -”

“Might we get on with it?” 

“They’re boring, Annette,” Cordelia concludes, her voice filled with something important. “And not just their conversations or livestyles; I mean that the essence of who they are is dull and lifeless. But you… you’re… well…” she gestures to the room around her as though it explains everything. “Penny could never be in such a space.” 

“I’m not sure I deserve credit for the way I am currently occupying it,” Annette mutters, “I am longing for the moment when we depart it and never return.” 

“No, no you’re not.” 

“I am, Miss Jones,” Annette stands, frustrated and impatient. “Now, please, may we conclude our business and be done here?” 

Cordelia is quiet for a long moment, and Annette is surprised to find that she seems disappointed. She’s even more surprised to find that she feels disappointed that Cordelia is disappointed. She takes a deep breath, pushing away the grumpy side of herself that simply wished to return to sleep, and returns into the storage closet to inspect the body. 

“I cannot fathom how you found him so,” she says softly to the detective, who joins her a moment later with a neutral scowl. 

“I suspected arson,” Cordelia answers, her voice disaffected and flat. “The signs indicated it was set from within the building, and I traced out the trajectory a fleeing culprit might attempt an escape from. The logical exit,” she points in the direction of the locked door outside, “fell through, so he would have sought protection from the fire. And thus, storage room.” 

Annette feels guilty that her enthusiasm seems to have disappeared, and she shuffles in place repentantly. “That’s quite clever of you, Miss Jones.” 

“It’s nothing,” Cordelia shakes her head. “Simple hunch.” 

“Truly, it’s brilliant work.” 

“It’s fine, Annette,” the detective drops to her knees to inspect the body closer. 

“I’m quite serious. I can’t imagine anyone else would-,”

“Just stop talking, Miss Baker.”

Annette takes a step back and feels a trickle of guilt in her chest. Cordelia’s presence has lost its intrigue and warmth, and the detective seems to have once again retreated behind her wall of cool, superior hostility. Cordelia squats above the body, carefully searching it and refusing to look back at Annette. 

Cordelia sighs. “You didn’t even notice the most interesting part.” 

“What might that be, Miss Jones?” Annette’s tone returns to her domestic habit, and she feels a bit like she’s fallen from her good graces. 

“Do you recognize him at all?” 

Annette stares at the man, but shakes her head. 

“Neither of us have met him before,” Cordelia stands, holding a wallet in the palm of her hand. “But can you at least picture a likeness?” 

“I…” Annette squints, trying to read the lifeless face and recall some familiar connection, but falls short. “I’m afraid I don’t, Miss Jones.” 

Cordelia half-heartedly offers her the wallet, encouraging her to look inside. Annette timidly opens the leather wing, rummaging through the papers for anything identifying. 

“He left his usual papers at home: checks, identification, et cetera,” Cordelia says. “But study the handwriting for a moment on one of the notes he’s carrying.” Annette pulls out a small scrap of paper, which reads: 

 

If by industry they climb atop us, then by industry they will be cast down. 

 

Underneath the writing, there is a small symbol; a mallet striking a nail, circled by steam and smoke. Annette reads the note a few times, looking at the writing and feeling a familiar itch in the back of her head. Hours upon hours of studying these words and pen strokes made it all too recognizable. 

“This is Henry’s writing,” she declares suddenly. “Henry Rosen.” 

Cordelia nods, her apathy clouding her excitement. “Which means..?”

Annette stares down back at the body, feeling a shiver descend down her spine. “It can’t be. Henry must’ve given him this note, or something…” 

“Look at his face,” Cordelia shakes her head. “Those are his mother’s eyes.” 

“But how!?” Annette crumples the note in her hand without thinking, clenching her fist tightly. “Henry died in the locomotive crash.” 

“His body was never recovered.” 

Annette strolls back into the hallway, pacing up and down it and running her hands through her hair. “So, what? He derailed a train for show, just to escape? Kills Bembrook, sets a factory on fire?” 

“Have you seen that mallet symbol before, Miss Baker?” 

Annette unfolds the wrinkled note, looking at the symbol yet again. “No.” 

“Nor do I,” Cordelia admits. “‘If by industry they climb atop us, then by industry they will be cast down.’

“So we were right initially then?” Annette furrows her brow. “The manager at Pemberley Exports, Mister Bembrook, and now this factory fire, all caused by labor sympathizers? Does this mean Brimwell has nothing to do with it?” 

Cordelia thinks for a few breaths. “I believe we’ve stumbled into something much larger than we can see at the present. Don’t discount Lord Brimwell just yet.” She stares at Annette and pushes her lips into a dejected frown. “I need to think.” 

She strolls away past Annette, storming out of the factory and leaving her to return to 167th Mill Street on her own, worried once again about fracturing the tentative peace between them. 

– – – 

 

“It was a very… informative homily, Deacon,” Annette attempts, holding her hands together at her chest and fidgeting with them. “I’m impressed with your capacity to rival the length of Father Thomas’ speeches.” 

Simon chuckles, strolling casually beside her as they walk alongside the Fennes river. A winding path traces along the retaining wall, and when followed for long enough away from downtown, it turns into a relatively peaceful walking route. 

“You hated it,” Simon smiles. 

“Not true,” Annette protests. “Perhaps I would have a more formulated opinion of it had I not been lulled into the sweet embrace of a nap.” 

“You fell asleep during it?” 

“I believe that in the convent the Sisters refer to such an incident as ‘deep meditation.’” She grins weakly, careful that she walks near enough to him that it seems friendly but not too near that she might brush against him. 

“A shame, Miss Baker,” he shrugs. “With a mind so clever as yours, I would appreciate the feedback. It’s… difficult to hear honest reviews of my work at times. Not everyone is eager to injure the feelings of the priest-to-be.” 

“Then I shall tell you it was horrible,” Annette teases, “so that you might feel the pressure to improve regardless.” 

“Clever,” Simon inclines his head approvingly. “I’ll redouble my efforts to impress you with my future homilies.” 

“I’m not easily impressed.” 

“Isn’t this lovely, Miss Baker?” Simon sighs, opening his hands to gesture to the comfortable early afternoon around them. A few trees hang over the pathway, allowing their towering branches to provide shade and dangle towards the river. 

“It’s… pleasant,” she says in a low voice. 

“I could so easily imagine this as my weekly routine,” he smiles. “I’d perform mass, then take a turn about the river with my wife rather than be bogged down by the chores of the cathedral.” 

“I… I hope that you receive an opportunity to fulfill such hopes.” 

Simon glances over at her as they continue to walk, and Annette quickly turns her head away to stare out over the river instead. Despite having had more time to strategize with how to deal with him, she’s no closer to finding a solution to be rid of Simon or neutralize the effect of the information he possessed. It would almost be easier to pretend to go along with him if he were less polite or cordial… any outside observer would struggle to find a compelling reason why someone might reject a proposal from him. She briefly considers attempting to push him into the river. 

“I should like it to be with you, Annette,” he leans a little closer, his voice warm and optimistic. “I truly admire how sharp your mind is. Conversation with you is like fencing, or some other finesse sport. It keeps my mind alive and my wits sharp.” 

Annette stifles the instinct to make a quip about the difficulty of sharpening a perpetually dull knife. “Unfortunately, I’ve no answer for you, Deacon.”

“Simon,” he nudges once more. 

“...Simon,” she relents. “Marriage is still so far from the forefront of my mind.” 

“Twenty-three is not young to marry.” 

“And yet it feels so young, does it not?” 

“I’m afraid I can’t relate,” he shakes his head pleasantly, gazing down the path before them. “I’ve wished to be married since I was a young boy. What did you wish for when you were younger?” 

Annette exhales and gestures to her body. “This.” 

“Right,” Simon says quickly, flushing brightly with embarrassment. “My apologies, I should have-,” 

She holds up a hand to absolve him of the awkward moment, having endured it enough times. But, she had been far more worried he would ask whether or not she had always wanted to marry, and that question felt far more treacherous. 

Simon clears his throat, resetting. “I wondered if we might discuss a more sensitive subject, Miss Baker.”

Annette frowns and takes a long breath. She looks around, realizing that Simon had deliberately waited until they had more privacy before turning to this subject. She’s a little grateful for the fact, though she wishes he’d just let her walk in silence and be done with it all. “I suspect you’ll ask regardless of my permission.” 

“I’m only broaching the topic because of its importance,” he affirms. “Should it be anything less than necessary I would gladly leave it be.” 

Annette grumbles, but fortifies her defenses. Stringing Simon along would likely require plenty of moments like this, and so she may as well learn how to navigate the topic of her attractions in such a way that he is satisfied with seeing her shame. Meanwhile, she would attempt to insulate herself from the encounters, trying to hold on to her own vital sense of dignity. 

“If you must,” she sighs. 

“What is it like, being twice-born?” 

“Oh,” Annette stops in her tracks, surprised. 

“My apologies, I understand that it can be sensitive to-,”

“It’s alright,” she interrupts, resuming her walk. “I had expected an entirely different subject matter.” She takes a deep breath, reeling from the unexpected twist. She’s relieved to talk about a far less charged subject. “Being twice-born… it… it just feels normal. To be honest, I don’t think about it very often anymore. Hardly anyone knows or recognizes me as such, so in most of my life I’m simply just some woman on the street.” 

“I find it profound,” Simon replies. 

“Profound?” Annette furrows her brow. 

“Well, it’s such a perfect image of resurrection, of Christ,” he says, looking at her with an excited gleam in his eyes. “‘There is no male or female… for you are all one in Christ Jesus,’ the Apostle tells us in Galatians. That through rebirth we might cross over from one side to another, from male to female or vice versa, is truly a testament to Jesus’ resurrection. That everything masculine about you can die and be reborn as perfectly and exclusively feminine… it’s marvelous.”

Annette feels a tense bubbling in her chest, shrinking inside at his words. There’s something strange about the way Simon says them, and Annette cannot conjure what it is. One the one hand, it almost sounds as though he was convincing himself of the point. On the other, that somehow he felt Annette needed a reminder. But then there’s something else creeping underneath even those motives that Annette doesn’t understand. 

“It’s a wonder, Deacon,” she mumbles. 

“Thank you for indulging me on the subject, Annette,” he smiles. “I find you fascinating.” 

“For being twice-born?” 

“Amongst other reasons,” Simon nods. “I likewise admire your mind, as I am oft to declare.” 

“Why would you find me more interesting for being twice-born?”

He’s quiet for a moment. “It’s a marvelous picture of God’s-,” 

“There’s another reason, isn’t there?” She accuses, halting her walk and crossing her arms over her chest. “You told Pullwater that I would be an acceptable wife because priests are not required to sire children. Why don’t you care about having children?” 

Simon stops, looking away from Annette and leaning up against the stone wall that overlooks the river. His face falls unusually solemn, his typically ever-present smile slowly drifting away as he gazes out over the water. Annette remains in the center of the path, watching him with a cautious curiosity. 

“Compromises,” he says at last, his voice low and thoughtful. “The path of following God with integrity is all about compromises. What might we be called upon to sacrifice for his will? What might we compromise to remain on the right path?” 

Simon takes a long breath and turns back to look at her, a little bit of warmth returning to his face. “I sacrificed much to enter the clergy. I expected to be placed in a monastery, possibly somewhere far away with an oath of silence and poverty and celibacy and the like. But instead, I was called to popular ministry.” 

Annette stares at him, suspecting where this point was going and desperately hoping her instincts were wrong. 

“And then,” Simon shakes his head, a little amused and frustrated, but also excited, “the Lord called me to marriage. He found that little boy inside of my soul and spoke to that great hope I had always dreamed for, and told me there was a way to honor his path. He brought me to you… my compromise.” 

Annette turns and walks away. 

Simon jolts from his position, leaping forward and carefully grabbing her wrist to prevent her from leaving. She glares at him angrily, unsuccessfully attempting to free herself from his grip while he clenches his teeth apologetically. 

“I’m quite sorry-,”

“It is highly inappropriate to grab a woman so,” Annette threatens, lowering her brows with a firm warning. 

“Please remain, Miss Baker,” he urges, maintaining his grasp. 

“Let. Me. Go.” 

Simon holds her eye-contact for a tense few breaths, but relents. His fingers slowly unfurl from her hand, and Annette quickly turns around to storm away once more. He dashes forward to continue walking beside her, his longer legs easily matching her stride. 

“Allow me to explai-,’ 

“I’d rather not,” she snips, “if it’s all the same to you, Deacon.” 

“God is calling us together, Miss Baker. He has clearly prepared us for each other-,” 

“God would be wise to maintain his own business, and allow me to conduct my own unhindered,” she grumbles. 

“You can’t possibl-,” 

“Enough!” Annette shouts, halting in place and clenching her fists tightly to restrain her frustrations as best as possible. She quickly gazes up and down the trail, dropping her voice to just above a whisper after confirming they’re still alone. “How dare you.” 

“How dare I? I am following God’s-,” 

“What was his name?” 

“Pardon?” 

Annette scowls and crosses her arms, tapping her foot impatiently. “The man you were caught with; what was his name?” Simon maintains a nervous deadpan. “That’s what drove you to the clergy, isn’t it? What better way to avoid speculation of your sins?” 

“I assure you I am guilty of no such-,” 

Annette’s frown deepens, and Simon’s sentence drifts off. “Does Sister Pullwater know? Is this why she’s thrust you upon me, to strike down two queer birds with one marriage?” 

“I am not queer,” he whispers, quiet and harsh, then takes a breath and speaks as though repeating a rehearsed line, “I have correctly identified my attractions towards women of your particular nature.” 

“And where is my compromise?” 

“Compromise?” 

She paces away a few steps to control her fury. “If I am to be your consolation prize - far enough from a once-born woman to entertain you but close enough to quell suspicion - then where might mine be? Am I to simply waste away under the shadow of your desires?” 

“God has a plan-,” 

“God has no plan for me,” she bites back. “Nor you. Nor any of us. Where might God be while you pine for a man you cannot have?” 

A pause. “I’d wager he’s erasing my name from his good book.” 

Annette exhales a tense breath. “When I meet you in hell I will know that at least I walked there of my own volition. I bid you good day, deacon.”  

“I can protect you,” Simon asserts. “Marriage would shield you from the consequences of your past transgressions.” 

“I’ve not asked for your protection.” 

“It would absolve your past.” 

“Perhaps my past is my present,” she hisses back. 

“You don’t mean that,” he shakes his head. “You cannot.” 

“I do.” 

“You don’t,” Simon’s brows lower seriously. He steps away slightly, burying his hands into his pockets and gazing upon her with a look of revolting concern. “You have an option, Annette. Punishment is inevitable, in this life or the next. If you marry me, I can protect you from the justice of man, and you’ll be given grace from the justice of God.” 

‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,’” Annette quotes back at him, flashing a final dismissive look of scorn and making her escape. She departs back along the path from where they came, beginning the journey back towards downtown. 

“God’s sinlessness becomes unfortunately relevant after his first stone strikes you,” Simon calls back weakly, finally allowing her to leave. 

Annette storms away, aggressively ruminating with every click of her heels on cobblestone. She clenches and unclenches her hands as she goes, trying to find some outlet for the bursts of rage pushing all throughout her. It was the hypocrisy, the entitlement, that truly ate her away. If what she suspected and he all but admitted was true, Simon should understand the impossibility of his request. Annette had heard of arrangements between men and women like her, who married as cover for their true attractions, but Simon wasn’t even proposing such a deal. He truly believed he could change himself, and he’d be watching over her at all times. 

Fuck, she mutters inside, stopping briefly and remembering that she was supposed to swing by the market on her way home. She adjusts her course slightly, turning back towards the nearest market, where she quietly grabs whatever her mind will allow her to remember. Her face must look sour indeed, because even many of the shopkeepers and vendors and tradesmen she’d built rapport with steered clear of her attention. She appreciates the silent agreement to leave her be. 

She replays Simon’s words in her head as she tosses a variety of items into her bag, only partially recalling what Cordelia requested. After the initial fury subsides, Annette’s anxiety returns. 

You were supposed to lead him on, a voice inside warns. 

Annette sighs loudly, earning a disgruntled side-eye from another shopper. There was hardly any chance that Simon would decide to give her another opportunity to reject him. She’d made her feelings clear enough. Once he reported it back to Sister Pullwater, the nun was sure to interject herself into Annette’s life with even more force. 

They’ll tell Cordelia… 

A pit forms in Annette’s stomach. As eccentric as Cordelia was, as much of an outcast as she may be, it’s impossible to tell how she might react to such news. While Cordelia may have allowed Annette to occasionally gripe at the strictness of the nuns, she seemed unwilling to invoke the ire of Sister Pullwater. As strange as 167th Mill Street could be, it was the most stability Annette could realistically ask for, and Cordelia was one of the most lenient owners she’d ever heard of. Would Pullwater really jeopardize that?

Annette knows the answer. If Cordelia threw Annette out or resold her contract, Pullwater would simply call it a fitting punishment for her behavior… especially after Simon tells her what Annette did at the ball. Maybe she should go back to Simon and apologize, and attempt to plead for forgiveness? It wouldn’t be impossible to lie and say her outburst was a remnant of the “wickedness in her soul” or something cliche like that. But even as she considers it Annette can feel her heart and pride reject it outright. She’d hold onto her dignity. 

“Pardon me, Miss?” 

What?” Annette snips back at the stranger, turning and scowling deeply. 

“I noticed you seem disgruntled.” 

Annette glares at the man, possibly around twenty-five and wearing the thick clothes of a typical factory worker. His forehead is covered in soot, and his unkempt hair looks matted and pushed down from wearing a hat all day. He leans up against the post of a nearby vendor, looking at her with a purposeful sympathy. 

“Observant, are you?” 

“Simply concerned for a fellow laborer,” he answers. 

“Perhaps your concern could be less vocalized.” 

He smirks, looking away. His eyes scan the crowd and his voice drops lower. “I noticed your collar. Might the source of your displeasure be related to your contract?” 

Annette sighs and stares at him. 

“No answer necessary, Miss,” he nods. “Might I speak with you a moment regarding this arrangement?” 

“Only if you can promise this conversation to be over by the time I’ve selected my onions,” she rolls her eyes, returning her focus to the produce in front of her. 

“Quick pitch, then,” he smiles. “You deserve freedom.” 

“I am free.” 

“Freemen aren’t required to wear collars full-time.” 

“Mine is simply fashion,” she deflects dispassionately. 

“There’s no need to be afraid, Miss,” he leans forward. “I represent a group looking to increase options for the everyday laborer.” 

“You’re a unionist.” 

He snorts. 

“I wasn’t aware I told a joke,” she scowls, feeling a strange tingling at the base of her neck. 

“Unions are too narrow,” he shakes his head. “If I told you that you had a choice between starving to death or being whipped to death, have I really provided any option?” 

“Is ‘talked to death’ a possibility as well?” 

“Lacking in choice regardless. Why can’t any of the options allow a man to live free and clear of his own volition?” 

“Might a woman still require a collar round her neck or a ring upon her finger?” 

“Pardon?” 

Annette lets out a tense breath and rolls her eyes again. “Ignore me.” 

“Our freedom is inhibited by bigger men building bigger and bigger machines, taking over whole cities just to run their engines. I say, why not put a stop to them?” 

“If you believe I somehow possess such an ability you’re sorely mistake-,” 

“It’s all about solidarity,” he explains. “More of us the better.” 

“Us?” 

“Laborers, united under a single banner.” 

“A union.” 

“It’s more than unions, Miss,” he asserts. 

Annette shrugs, picking her final onion and closing her bag. “I think that’s the most conversational produce selection I’ve yet to make. I’ll be on my way. Good day.” 

“It's a revolution,” he says quickly, his voice bouncing excitedly. 

Annette turns back, eager to dismiss him one last time as an overzealous fool, when she sees his outstretched palm, holding a small piece of parchment on it with a single stamp: a mallet striking a nail, circled by smoke and steam. 

A shiver descends down her spine and she feels her heart skip, the buzzing of necessity bouncing in her head. “What… what is that?” She asks, feeling her legs tingle as though preparing to sprint. 

“Thursday eve, Docksims Square Park,” his eyes meet hers, brow furrowing seriously. “This is your ticket to a new world.” He folds the slip of paper into her hand, nodding once more and disappearing into the crowd, surely to corner yet another promising laborer. 

Annette’s hand trembles as she holds the paper, glaring at it for a long moment while the hairs on the back of her neck stand at attention. She races home, wondering if she was lying to herself when she told Cordelia she didn’t feel the feeling that the detective speaks so importantly about. 

45