Chapter Eight
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Chapter Eight 

 

Annette strolls inside of The Kingfisher's King and immediately understands the urge to fight. In a bar such as this one the impulse is nearly irresistible. It was something about the dim lighting, or the smell of sweat and cigars, or the restrained electricity in the air. After a few minutes inside she could feel her senses heighten and her inhibitions lower. It was only her objective that kept her grounded. 

Cordelia returned late the night they investigated the fire. The following night she’d hardly returned at all, stumbling through the door at the crack of dawn already nursing what was sure to be a mighty hangover. Tonight, Annette could feel something tense around the house when Cordelia left, and once midnight arrived and Cordelia had yet to return, she resolved to go pursue her. It wasn’t unusual for her to be out late; but three rough nights in a row surely meant something.  

The Kingfisher’s King was Cordelia’s bar of choice - the source of most of her hangovers and the battleground for most of her boxing matches. There are plenty of nicer bars with better drinks but this is where the athletes go, and so Cordelia follows them. Annette suspects Cordelia likes the fact that it was almost exclusively men and that she was often the sole source of any gendered integration. She liked the power that carried.

The bartender greets Annette with little more than a scowl and a shrug, deep brown eyes looking her over with an amused distrust. “You lost?” He grunts. 

“Poor name for a bar,” Annette chirps back. “You only need ‘King’ in the title once, don’t you agree?” 

“What do you want?” He sighs, grabbing a pint glass from behind the counter and setting it down loudly. He keeps it notably far back from her, as though convinced she couldn’t handle it. 

“Searching for my owner,” she taps her collar. “I suspect she was here tonight.” 

“Ain’t that a little backwards?” His bushy brows furrow. 

“In which way?” 

“Aren’t owners usually hunting down you pesky lot?” 

“Mine is eccentric.” 

“Cordelia,” the bartender guesses. 

“The very same. Was she here tonight?” 

He shrugs again. “I don’t keep this job by running my mouth.” 

Annette glares at the glass in his large hands, still carefully tucked out of her reach. In many ways, this barkeep reminds her of a messier version of Bill from the Fleeting Faery, and the thought is mildly comforting. 

“Whiskey, if you’d be so kind,” she smiles. 

“It’s strong,” he warns. 

“And I’m not?” 

He snorts quietly. “No.” 

“Whiskey,” she repeats. 

He turns around and fills the pint glass with the nearest cider instead, letting the golden liquid rise to the brim and foam pleasantly. He sets it onto the counter and slides it over to her. 

“It’s on her tab,” he mutters. 

Annette looks over the glass and debates fighting the issue. She hates whiskey, but she suspects he’d only talk if she was drinking and whiskey is the only drink men like him would respect. She concedes, grateful to not have to fake enjoyment of it, and takes a sip from the pint. 

“I’m worried about her,” Annette tells him. “She’s not usually this upset.” 

“Didn’t seem upset to me.” 

“So she was here?” 

He grunts ambiguously. Annette places a neutral expression on her face, trying to read him and deduce the correct way to gather her information. It’s difficult to detect if he’s lying - Cordelia has hardly spoken with Annette since investigating the 8th Street Textile Factory and finding Henry’s body, where Annette had yet again disappointed her. Every time the detective notes hesitancy in Annette on the job, she shuts her out until she proves herself once again. Annette figures that proactively hunting her down and dragging her out of her drunken stupor was sure to do the trick. 

“What’s your name?” She asks politely. 

“Haggis.” 

“Like the food?” 

He grunts. 

Annette can’t tell if he’s joking or not, but decides to humor him. She takes a sip and asks, “Well, Mr. Haggis, I need to find her, and you’re going to tell me how.” 

“And why would I do that?” 

“Kindness of your heart?” 

He chuckles and raps a knuckle on his chest. “It’s all empty here.” 

“She could be in danger.” 

“Cordelia often is the danger.” 

“I could convince her to stop causing trouble here.” 

He shakes his head. “Her trouble brings in business.” 

“Is she that good of a boxer?” 

“She defeated Winston last night.” 

“How?” 

“She just did.” 

Annette furrows her brow. “She’s strong, but the boxers are mountains of muscle. How does she defeat them?” 

“She just does.” 

“Does she out-think them?” 

“If you’re thinking while boxing you’re doing it wrong.” 

“Is she more cunning?” 

“Than the heavyweights? No.” He sighs. “You gonna keep bugging me?” 

“Until you tell me where she went.” 

Haggis scowls and points a lazy finger to a well-dressed man in the corner of the bar. “Ask him.” 

“Who is he?” 

“Just ask him, girl.” Haggis swipes the barely-touched cider from her hands and gulps it down. He stomps it down onto the counter, waving her away from his area. 

Annette shakes her head and lifts herself off of the stool, avoiding the various stares in the room as she walks. She’s the only woman in the bar tonight; a thought that would be unsettling if not for the meager protections offered to collared servants. Anyone who’d dare lay a hand on her would face Cordelia’s ire, and it was one of the few ways that her reputation was highly beneficial to Annette. 

“I’m searching for Cordelia Jones,” Annette declares, confidently strolling up to the gentleman. He’s short and polished, with the air of an accountant who’s definition of letting loose involved a tame night in with a drink in hand. He looks up from his book and smiles politely. 

“Owner?” His creaky voice asks. Annette nods. 

“Was she here tonight?” 

“Oh, yes,” he bobs his head affirmatively, “though not for long. She was quite excited about the news.” 

“What news?” 

“Are you authorized to conduct her business without her-,”

“Yes,” Annette answers quickly. He looks as though he might contest her assertion, but relents. 

“She received word last Friday evening that she was approved for betting pools.” 

“Betting pools? How on earth would they qualify her for that?” 

“She’s got friends in high places it seems,” he gestures for Annette to sit. “Gerard Monteborn, at your service,” he greets. 

“Annette Baker,” Annette furrows her brow. “So… They’ve let a woman join the betting pools. That’s never happened before.” 

“She was in the ring and everything.” 

Annette’s eyes bulge. “She fought in the ring?” 

“Against Borne a few hours ago.” 

“Where is she now?” 

“Might I be expected to know the whereabouts of every boxer in the city?” 

She bites her tongue. “Is there any chance she’s still at whatever place they hold the matches?” 

“Well, the Kingfisher’s King is her usual stomping ground,” he shrugs. “If she isn’t here, then it’s possible.” 

Annette stands hastily, “Good evening.” 

“Now, wait a moment, Miss,” he extends a hand, “might you be amenable to remaining in my company for another drink this-,”

“No,” she dismisses, quickly exiting the bar. 

Annette was vaguely familiar with where they held most of the boxing matches in this part of town. It’d likely be on 17th street, where an unfinished factory building was snapped up towards the end of its construction, quickly renovated to a modest boxing arena after the previous arena burned down in a fire. It wasn’t huge, just enough room for a standard ring, a few stands, and a few stalls for bookies. 

It’s mostly empty when she arrives, and looks as though the evening's activities have ended less than an hour before. She strolls inside with a confidence that teetered on hubris, making her way over to the betting stands like she truly belongs there. She receives a few confused or pernicious smiles from the workers cleaning up the stands and rings, but ignores them. 

“Where might I find Cordelia Jones?” She demands, throwing her hands onto her hips as she arrives. 

“If you’re here to collect your winnings you’ve arrived remarkably late-,” the bookie stops himself as he looks up from his stall, noticing her collar. “Oh. What might your business with her be?” 

“She’s my owner,” she lifts her chin to emphasize the collar. “I’ve heard she was here tonight. Do you know where she might have gone off to?” 

“Likely to moap in some dark alleyway,” he shrugs. 

“Why would she be moping?” 

“I don’t work for you, girl,” he frowns. “Get out.” 

“Simply point the way she departed and I’ll leave at once.” 

“Out,” he waves her away. 

Annette sighs and strolls back towards the workers in the ring, approaching the stage with an impatient and purposeful expression. “Have any of you seen where Cordelia Jones has gone off to?” 

A number of them pause from their work, exchanging knowing looks between themselves. A few of them grin wickedly, and for a moment Annette wonders if she might need to leave after all. 

“She fought here tonight, didn’t she?” Annette asks. 

One of them nods, though the rest maintain their distance. 

“And what happened?” 

A scattered array of laughs bounce between them. 

Annette sighs. “Just point me in her direction and I’ll be gone. Please and thank you.” There’s no reply. “Even just which exit she departed from?” 

One of the workers shakes his head but points out of the south exit. 

“Thank you,” Annette mutters, turning on her heel to depart. 

“Why don’t you stay and give us some entertainment, eh?” Another scattering of laughter. 

Annette ignores them, returning out onto the street and wondering if she would have been better off stealing some of Cordelia’s clothes again. While she’d enjoyed the power that came with them, and the comfort, she was worried that tonight people would see through her veneer and it’d cause more trouble than it was worth. She hoped her collar would at least endear the helpful sympathy owed to a laboring woman, but it seems she was largely mistaken. 

She looks up and down the street from the South exit. Down the right, 17th street would curve towards various residential districts. Nothing particularly remarkable or relevant, unless Cordelia knows anyone there. Down the left, there were three main options: downtown, which would be mostly closed up at this time of night; the maritime district, which couldn’t possibly be her destination; or the railyards… and Elenore’s Gallery. Annette sighs, preparing herself to drop by the brothel and have to retrieve Cordelia from whatever sorry state she might be in. 

Why didn’t she tell me she qualified for betting pools? Annette grumbles inside as she makes her way down the street. She keeps to the shadows, hoping to attract as little attention as possible. 

It must be that she’s still disappointed in me, she concludes. Once again, the detective felt Annette wasn’t up to the task of keeping up with her, so she withheld information. Typical.

Annette frowns as she walks, pulling her coat tight and complaining about Cordelia’s unhelpful self-reliance and lack of communication. Annette hates to see her come home drunk and wounded from her fights, and if she could simply be allowed to accompany the detective on these escapades, she could tend to the injuries faster or help prevent them altogether. Cordelia would rather let an injury get infected or develop nasty swelling than let Annette simply help her. 

But apparently she just wasn’t up to Cordelia’s standards. There was no moderation with the detective, no compromise. If one wanted to follow in her activities they had to keep up and not slow her down at all. She seemed to see Annette’s groundedness or reasonability as a hindrance. Just because Cordelia could handle the sight of mangled bodies didn’t mean everyone else could, and she unrealistically expects that Annette could match this ability. 

She arrives at Elenore’s Gallery frustrated and bitter, sure that the last three days of Cordelia’s late night bender were a convoluted way to punish Annette. She even suspects that coming to the Gallery might just be a way to embarrass Annette. She’s probably waiting for her up in some wretched room upstairs, ready to laugh and cackle at the servant and scold her to stomach her restraint. 

“We don’t serve collars in th-,” a worker begins as Annette arrives, but she hastily interrupts her. 

“Just bring me to Miss Jones,” she groans. 

“Oh, thank God,” the girl drops her head into her hands. 

“Pardon?” 

“We’re worried about her,” the worker explains, waving for Annette to follow her. She speaks in hushed tones as she leads her upstairs, moving quietly and quickly. “She’s always… erm… passionate, but tonight she seems rabid.” 

“Rabid?” 

“Or feral. Like a stray cat.”

“And you let her in?” 

“She’s a regular,” the worker replies dispassionately, as though the fact explained it all. She stops at a door on the second floor, gesturing for Annette to enter if she wants. Annette sighs, gripping the door handle and swinging it open. 

Her heart skips a beat at the sight before her, and Annette briefly wonders why she hadn’t prepared herself for what she might possibly walk into. Cordelia lounges casually on a bed, propped up on her elbows without any pants on. One woman lays atop her, entirely naked and burying her kisses into the detective's neck. Another woman, also naked, wraps her arms around Cordelia’s thigh, massaging the soft skin and kissing it as well. A final woman’s face is deep between her legs, expertly going to work on Cordelia’s privates. 

Cordelia’s face sports a dark purple bruise around her left eye, as well as a scattering of other cuts and scrapes along her face. From what Annette can see elsewhere on her body, she looks thoroughly beat up. It seems someone cleaned the blood off of her wounds and lightly bandaged some, but Annette knows she’s going to be in a significant amount of pain in the morning. 

But as Annette stands in the doorway, witnessing the scene unfold around her, she can’t peel her gaze away from Cordelia’s face and the expression she makes. Her lips part ever so slightly as she exhales joyfully. Her cheeks are flushed and full, and with her eyes closed she looks as though profoundly enraptured. Annette feels a burning sensation in her chest that she doesn’t understand and her clenched hands tremble. Her mind feels as though it’s either been frozen or set aflame. All of the muscles across her body tighten, and she feels a powerful emotion wash over her. 

She slams the door behind her and strolls into the room, angrily shouting, “Miss Jones!”

Cordelia’s eyes rip open and she bolts up suddenly, accidentally kicking the woman draped across her thigh with her knee. “A-Annette?” She stammers. 

“Off of her!” Annette orders, snapping her fingers at the women around her. They nervously look back and forth between the two, and only remove themselves from the detective when Annette repeats herself louder. She steps aside as they scramble to grab their robes and race out of the room. 

“Christ, Annette! What are you doing here!?” Cordelia exclaims, swiftly retrieving her underwear and pants and donning them once more. Annette tries not to watch, but she feels out of control of her own body, consumed by an emotion she doesn’t understand. 

“What are you doing here?” Annette snips back, folding her arms across her chest and towering over the detective on the bed. 

Cordelia anxiously glances at the door, “Whatever you think you saw, I am ordering you to keep it to your-,”

“I have been worried sick about you!” Annette stomps her foot. “Where have you been?” Cordelia stands, an angry expression forming, and moves to exit the room only to have Annette block her path. “Sit down,” Annette commands. 

“I’ll not be taking orders from-,” 

Sit… down…” She repeats through clenched teeth. Cordelia locks eyes for a long moment with her, testing her resolve. She slowly lowers herself back down onto the bed. 

Cordelia sighs, dropping her face into her hands. “Look, Annette, you cannot tell anyone about this.”

“What happened tonight?” Annette deflects, her voice still tense and measured. She paces away a few steps, trying to regain some control of her feelings. 

“I… I’m not-,”

“Actually,” Annette interrupts, “I’ll tell you what happened. On Saturday, you woke me up at the crack of dawn to stare at burned corpses, only to be upset with me because I found it repulsive.” 

“Annet-,”

“Then,” she continues, “because you decided that this meant I wasn’t up to your standards, you decided to go on a drunken rampage through the nightlife of our city for the next three nights, leaving me at home to wonder if you’d return at all.” 

“That’s not-,” 

Then, you somehow qualified for an actual boxing match and competed without letting me know, getting yourself thoroughly beat up in the process. You knew I’d be concerned, and of course I was. So I tracked you down, only to find you drowning in women in a brothel. Am I correct?” 

“Christ, Annette,” Cordelia shakes her head. “You think this is about you?” She groans loudly and drops back into the bed. 

“It is,” she affirms. “Now apologize.” 

“I’m not going to apolo-,”

“Do it!” 

“Christ,” Cordelia mutters and turns to her side. “Just, go, Annette.” 

“Not until you tell me I’m right and apologize.” 

“I won’t be do-,”

“Do you understand what happens to me if you don’t come home?” Annette interjects. She raises a brow, daring Cordelia to answer. When the detective doesn’t, Annette says, “I lose everything. As baffling as it is, you, and your ownership of my contract, are the best thing that has happened to me in ages. I’ll not lose all of this because of your nighttime antics.” 

“You’re not going to report me?” 

“Report you?” 

Cordelia turns back, a surprisingly concerned look adorning her battered face. “You’ve caught me in bed with three women.” 

Annette feels her face warm again. “And I’m furious at you for it.” 

“So then report me.” 

“Why would I do that?” 

Cordelia scowls. “Then why are you angry with me about it?” 

A rush of unrecognizable feelings race through Annette’s mind. Just tell her, a small voice inside pleads. You’re the same as her. But Annette panics, too used to defending and deflecting this identity to reveal it. 

“Because if you are consumed with scandal, so am I, Miss Jones,” she answers, shoving her hands into the pockets of her coat. “It’s already difficult enough to function as a servant with your reputation as is.” She holds her breath for a moment and shakes her head. “Why are we still here? We need to leave.” 

“Now, wait, I’ll not be-,” 

Annette steps towards the door and opens it, snapping her fingers. “Now, Miss Jones, if you’d be so kind.” 

Cordelia raises an eyebrow, challenged by the commanding forwardness of Annette’s speech. She stands slowly and allows Annette to lead her out of the room, down the stairs, and into the street. She smiles at the workers as she goes, many of whom must be confused by the sight before their eyes: an owner being escorted out by her servant. 

Cordelia walks ahead of Annette on the way home, as though subtly punishing her by refusing to allow the servant to match her stride. It’s a quiet walk initially, until Annette feels her frustrations surface once more. 

“I’ll never be good enough to earn your respect, will I?” 

No response. 

“Do you know how many dead bodies I witnessed before your service?” She says a little louder. “Significantly less, Miss Jones.” 

Still nothing. 

“I’m not simply a tool for you to use as you wish. I am a person. I have feelings. I can’t be expected to meet all of your ridiculous standards.” 

Cordelia halts her walk, hanging her head low. She takes a long breath, and when she speaks again, her voice is tired and burdened. “Must you twist the handle, Annette?” 

“As though I’m the one who’s metaphorically stabbed you?” 

The detective sighs. “And here I thought we were becoming friends.” 

“You own my contract.” 

“So if I were to release you, you would no longer remain?” 

There’s a painful wishfulness in Cordelia’s voice that catches Annette unawares. Her words are so agonizingly sincere, so devoid of any pretense. It was true, Cordelia actually did believe they were on the path towards friendship.  

“I…” Annette drifts off, unsure of how to respond. 

“Of course,” Cordelia sighs and shrugs. She turns and continues her march home. Annette follows behind, feeling her thoughts stumble along. “Christ, it’s always the lesbianism,” Cordelia mutters. 

“I assure you, Miss, that-,”

“Don’t bother, Annette,” she interjects. “I’ve lost enough friends to this fact as it is. Please, don’t burden me with the experience of another loss. You’ve made your point.” 

Annette is silent, unsure of how to communicate her thoughts to Cordelia. For some reason that Annette can’t explain, this surprising similarity between the two has shaken her. It should be easy enough to tell her that Annette has been with women too, and that there was no cause for shame around the issue… but Annette is also mad at her for the fact. How much stress of her days could have been avoided if this was something she had known earlier about Cordelia? Perhaps the detective would have been kinder with her, more generous. 

The image of the three women draped across Cordelia flashes in her head once more, and Annette feels a rush of jealousy course through her. It felt so impossible to get any privacy for herself, and she’s still furious that Simon ruined her last encounter with Samantha. God, she wishes she could somehow sneak the noblewoman over to her room. If Cordelia would simply give her an advanced notice of when she’d be out all night, Annette could even have the home to herself with Samantha. 

 At the steps to 167th Mill Street, Annette releases a tense breath and says, “Miss Jones… please, wait a moment.” 

“I’ve had enough of your commands for an evening, Miss Baker,” Cordelia complains, though she does halt. 

“I was worried about you.” 

“So you’ve said,”she crosses her arms tightly and impatiently. 

“I… I’m sorry,” Annette shoves down her hostility with great effort. “For losing my temper,” she adds. 

“For your temper…” Cordelia takes a long breath. “Might I go inside now?” 

“Would you like me to take a look at your injuries?” 

“No.” 

“Don’t be so stubborn. Let me help,” Annette sighs. 

“Oh, I’m stubborn?” 

“Yes, you are.” 

“Annette, you’re stubborn!” 

“This isn’t about me-,” 

“Of course it is about you,” she huffs. “You’ve made it all entirely about yourself! Have you considered that I might be upset for a reason entirely separate from you?” 

“You’ve been distant with me ever since the fire.” 

Cordelia groans, searching her pockets for the keys to the house. She becomes more and more frustrated as she can’t find them. “I’ve lost my keys. Open the door, Annette.” 

“No.” 

No?”

“Tell me what happened.” 

“Just open the goddamn door.” 

“Tell me what happened,” she repeats. 

“Haven’t I suffered enough embarrassment tonight, Miss Baker?” 

Annette pauses. “If you’ll allow me to tend to your injuries, and tell me what is going on, I will open the door.” 

“Christ…” Cordelia massages her temples and turns away. “Fine. Open the door.”

Annette carefully steps past her onto the top step, unlocking the door and gesturing for her to enter. She follows Cordelia inside, directing her to take a seat in the dining room while she retrieves hot water, a frozen slab of meat wrapped in a cloth, and a bottle of whiskey. 

She pulls a chair up beside Cordelia, pouring out a glass of whiskey for her and leaning in to inspect her wounds. While many of them have been lightly tended to, she decides not to take the risk, wiping away the traces of blood and sweat and dirt. Annette is surprised that Cordelia allows her to clean the cuts along her face and jaw, and she directs the detective to hold the frozen meat to her bruised eye. 

“So you qualified for betting pools,” Annette nudges. 

“Yes.” 

“How did you manage that?” 

Cordelia winces as Annette cleans an alarming cut just underneath her jaw with a large bruise forming around it. “While you were off doing whatever you were doing at the Hastings’ ball, I was convincing a friend in the boxing scene to take a risk on me. He owed me a favor from a case.” 

“So you finally got what you wanted, but then you decided to drink your way through the entire weekend. Why?” 

“Ouch,” Cordelia pulls away, grabbing the cloth from Annette’s hand and holding it to the wound Annette had been too forceful with. 

“Why would you set yourself up to fail like that?” Annette asks. 

“I didn’t.” 

“You’ve hardly slept in three days.” 

Cordelia sighs and closes her eyes. “Stop looking at me, please.” 

“I want you to answer-,” 

“And I will,” she insists. “I just can’t do it while you’re glaring at me like that.” 

“I’m not glaring-,”

Annette,” she hisses. “Please.” 

Annette turns away. From behind her, she can hear Cordelia take a long few breaths, tightly controlling her exhales. She hears the sound of her sipping the whiskey, and the clink of the glass being set back down onto the table. 

“I am, and have been, a monster all of my life, Annette,” Cordelia begins. “A bastard child, a misunderstood soul, a combative hothead, a tomboy, a lesbian.” 

Annette wants to say something but she keeps quiet, allowing the detective to say her piece. She listens with a somber enrapture. 

“Cordelia Jones is someone to be looked at as a warning story, a failure of a woman,” she scoffs. “She doesn’t have proper manners. She speaks her mind and doesn’t listen. She isn’t demure and feminine like a woman ought to be. She isn’t married and probably will never be. She wears pants, for Christ’s sake.” 

The chair creaks softly as Cordelia leans back. 

“It’s all I’ve ever been, and all I’ll ever be. I’ve tried to escape this destiny of mine. For a while, I played the part of the perfect girl. But bastards don’t get to be perfect. The goalposts were always shifted away from me,” she takes another sip of her drink. “So I stopped playing and became the freak show. A woman who works, and works a job that’s only supposed to be for men.

“I’m not even that eccentric,” Cordelia grumbles. “Eccentric is just a nicer way of saying that they think I’m crazy. You should see the personal lives of the other investigators in this city. They’re a wretched bunch, Annette. I just have the audacity to wear my monstrosity on the outside.” 

Cordelia pauses for a long time again. Annette considers responding, but there’s no words to say. She simply waits for her to continue. 

“Boxing is the one place I can punish them for how they’ve treated me. I’m still a woman, and I can’t escape that, but when there’s a man unconscious at my feet and blood on my fists, who can deny my power?” She clears her throat, searching for the right words to continue. “I’m still just a monster in their eyes. It’s easier in a bar, but tonight, in the ring… have you ever stood before a crowd of people and known that each and every one of them is dreaming of beating the shit out of you?” 

Another pause. 

“I lost, Annette. It wasn’t even a good fight. You don’t come back from that.” 

Annette starts and stops a few sentences, but the words don’t form. 

“Don’t say anything. Please,” Cordelia begs softly. “I’m done for tonight. Don’t bother waking me in the morning.” 

Cordelia rises from her place, grabbing her glass of whiskey and the bottle it was poured from, and slowly ascends the stairs. 

 

– – – 

 

Mary Rosen’s home is small, but comfortable and pleasant. It resides on the edge of the central district, so nearly joining the ranks of more distinguished society but failing. It was the home of a working family, but one with just ever so slightly more means than others. 

Annette sits in a chair in the kitchen, graciously accepting the cup of tea that Mary has poured out for her, a return of Annette’s gesture the last time they spoke. She lets out a tiny groan as she shuffles into the chair next to Annette, placing a gentle hand on the servant’s shoulder to steady herself. 

“There’s news, I take it?” Mary asks, her eyes hungrily scouring Annette’s face. 

Annette nods and takes a quiet sip of the tea. It takes a long time to find any words to say to the woman, and the desperate look in her eyes is painful to behold. And it wasn’t desperation for Henry to be alive; there was a hunger for justice for his death. How on Earth was Annette to bring the truth to her? 

She sighs. “The situation is more… complicated than we thought at first.” 

“Complicated?” Mary leans back and shakes her head. “Have you found a way to bring justice to Mister Bembrook?” 

“We… we were looking into his work, and Henry’s notes,” Annette explains. “Trying to find something that could help.” 

“Where is Cordelia? I thought she handled the cases?” 

Annette pauses. “She’s unfortunately preoccupied at the moment. She’s sent me in her stead.” 

Annette doesn't enjoy lying to Mary, but it once again feels impossible to bring the truth. Cordelia has hardly left her room in the last two days, hardly eaten at all. She’s swung so deeply into her defeat that it almost seems as though the detective has given up on everything. Annette had come by out of a feeling of obligation to tell Mrs. Rosen the truth. 

“Bembrook is dead,” Annette says at last. “We’re not entirely sure who killed him.” 

Mary takes a moment to accept the information, nodding with a resolved satisfaction. “And you had no part in this?” Annette shakes her head. “I can’t say he didn’t deserve it,” Mary concludes.

“I… Mary, I don’t know how to tell you this,” Annette braves, fiddling nervously with her hands. “We’ve found Henry’s body.” 

Mary’s eyes widen. “Where is it? Did it wash up ashore somewhere?” 

“He… he didn’t die in the locomotive accident.” 

“What?” 

“Last Friday, there was a fire in the 8th Street Textile Factory,” she explains apprehensively. “We found him there…” 

Mary lowers her face into her hands. “Was his body burned?” 

“No, we believe he died from the smoke.” 

Mary turns her face to the sky and mutters a prayer under her breath that Annette doesn’t understand. She smiles weakly at Annette, and takes her hands into her palms, squeezing them gently. “Thank you. Thank you.” 

“Why are you thanking me?” 

“Without his body,” Mary answers, “it’s against our traditions to hold a funeral. I have been waiting and waiting to begin grieving - everyone else wanted to bury him without the body. It’s good that it didn’t burn. Now, we can properly put him to rest.” 

“I’ll try to make sure we get his body to you, Mrs. Rosen,” Annette promises, though she feels a pit in her stomach. “But it may be difficult.” 

“Why?” 

Annette takes a deep breath. “We believe he started the fire. The crown investigators are holding his body as evidence for now.” 

Mary throws a shaking hand to her mouth. “He couldn’t have…” 

Annette pulls the scrap of paper out of her pocket that she was given in the market, with the same strangle symbol they found in Henry’s wallet. “Do… do you recognize this?” 

Mary studies it for a moment, then nods. 

“You do?” 

“The Mallets,” she supplies. 

“The Mallets?” Annette confirms. “Do you know who they are?” 

“It was just some social club Henry was a part of,” Mary shrugs. “Someone at his work started it.” 

“So they aren’t a union?” 

Mary scowls defensively. “Henry wasn’t a unionist. He followed rules. He was a good worker.” 

“I’m sorry,” Annette backtracks, “I didn’t mean to imply anything. We’re just trying to understand what happened.”

Mary stands suddenly. “Thank you for bringing the news nonetheless, Miss Baker. It will provide at least some peace. I will do what I can to see if we can be given Henry’s body.”

 

– – – 

 

Annette stares at the straw dummy with a railroad spike through its eye and wonders if her prior investigation into the death of Bembrook was worth the effort. As she takes in the modest crowd around her in Docksims Square Park, nestled on the edge of the industrial district, she wonders if such a display would count as a confession of murder. There’s a few other dummy’s just like it, none of them bearing any particular likeness to anyone Annette recognizes, and she suddenly wonders how dangerous it might be for her here. 

“-when Mr. Pemberley promised raises and improved conditions, did any of it materialize!?” The speaker up on the stage shouts his question to the audience, who jeer along with him in disgust at Pemberley Exports. “Instead, Mr. Pemberley outsourced his labor to the colonies, depriving the good workers here at home the chance to share in his gains!” 

Annette slowly winds her way through the crowd, which is made up entirely of workers and servants like herself. She shudders at the sight of dirty and weary laborers who sported collars of their own, knowing that the combination of the two likely meant they were forced into servitude for punishment of some crime. She was part of the privileged few who sold themselves into collar service, and even within that group was lucky to have a surprisingly lenient owner. 

“It’s a simple question of morality, of justice!” The speaker continues. He’s a short, stout man with a red beard and balding head. His light accent suggests Kerish origins, and with the power in his voice it’s no wonder people listened to him. He was as commanding and authoritative as any priest or general. “If they rise up, we must be brought up with them!” 

Behind the speaker, who only introduced himself by the name Failinis as a reference to the Kerish legends of the guardian wolf-dog, a large banner displays the Mallet’s symbol. Whereas the group previously seemed to dwell on secrecy, or subtlety at the very least, this gathering appeared to be their public debut. Annette is careful to notice any details she can, and makes note of the total number of straw dummies around the ring. There’s ten. If they aligned with figures the Mallet’s killed, the Pemberley middle-man, Bembrook, and the six in the 8th Street fire, that left two other murders Annette was unaware of. 

“It brings us here, fellow laborers, to the central question,” Failinis concludes. “If they are incapable of holding society upright, or keeping it moral and just and fair, then who will!?” The crowd cheers in affirmation, providing him his answer. He smiles a wide grin and steps down from the podium. 

Annette slowly makes her way to speak with him, the tiny whispers of a plan forming in the back of her mind. Part of her wishes Cordelia would exit her depressive slump and join her, but she quickly decides that having her owner here would likely do more harm than good. This was a job that only Annette could pull off. 

As she nears the place where Failinis exited the stage, she’s surprised to see that he’s disappeared. A handful of other Mallet’s members remain in his place, encouraging the crowd to sign up and support them. One of them spots Annette, standing a few feet behind the throng, and smiles, pushing his way over to her. It's only when he’s standing a few feet in front of her that Annette recognizes him as the worker from the market. 

“You came!” He grins, striding up to her with a pep in his step. 

“Indeed,” she nods. “Quite the speech.” 

The man smirks. “Failinis didn’t think so. He holds himself to dangerously high standards, I think he’s actually a little disappointed in himself.” 

“Please pass along my compliments nonetheless,” Annette supplies peaceably, “if that is him during a poor speech he must be an expert indeed.” 

“I’ll be sure to tell him,” the man smiles. “I didn’t think you’d make it.” 

“I’m surprised you remember me.” 

“With how grumpy and sarcastic you were? Couldn’t forget,” he grins again. “My name is Guy.” 

Annette shakes his hand. “Annette.” 

“Good to meet you,” Guy nods. “Have you given Failinis’ words any thought?” 

“A few,” she affirms. “Still taking it all in.”

“I’m glad to see you’ve an open mind.” 

“I try,” Annette looks around the park. “What’s with the straw dummies?” 

“Oh, those?” Guy shakes his head and smiles, as though relating an inside joke. “Just a little something to get the point across, you know?” 

Annette focuses on the one with the spike through its eye. “The rail spike is a nice touch.” 

“Failinis says it's a metaphor,” Guy explains happily. “That it represents the ways that the wealthy are ‘blinded by the steel of industry.’” 

“From what I’ve seen, they may as well be blinded by greed as well. You could just as easily impale them with currency,” she jokes. She’d expected to have to put on more of an act to convince Guy of her interest, but Annette is surprised at how much of her joke comes from a real sincerity. She’d been caught up in the idea that Bembrook was murdered and someone needed to discover why; she hadn’t spent as much time considering that part of her was thrilled at his demise. Enough people had died or been maimed by his work to make him deserve it.

“Well said, Miss,” Guy agrees. “I’m glad to see you in better spirits than in our first meeting.” 

“I am much better, thank you.” Annette replies, then adds, “You were right, by the way.” 

“About what?” 

She taps a finger to her collar. “I was angry about my owner,” she lies. It isn’t much of a lie; she did feel angry with Cordelia now, just not necessarily when she’d met Guy. 

“Who might that be?” His brows furrow seriously and protectively. 

“I shouldn’t say,” Annette looks away. “I’d already be in so much trouble just for being here. Sh-he’s vicious when I disobey.” 

“I’m so sorry to hear that. But you’re not alone,” Guy places a hand on the side of her shoulder to comfort her. “All of us know what that feeling is like.” 

“Have you ever been collared?” 

“Thankfully not, but I know plenty of friends who have.”

“So, the Mallets are going to stand up to them? The barons of industry?” 

“If we can. We’re a small group now. I think Failinis is hoping to make a run for a seat in Parliament.” 

“That’s incredible,” Annette smiles weakly. “But is it enough?” 

“You’ll see, Annette,” he squeezes his hand softly. “Chin up.” 

“Thanks.” Annette folds her hands behind her back and stares sadly at the ground. She needs to know more, to get in closer. “Is… is there anything I can do for the movement?” 

“We wouldn’t want to bring you into danger with your owner-,”

“Please,” Annette begs. “It doesn’t need to be anything big. Even something small would make me feel like I have power again.” 

“I can see what we can-,” Guy’s eyes suddenly dart to a place behind her, fear washing across his face. “Run!” he shouts, pushing Annette away towards a gap in the crowds. 

Something about the seriousness in his face crashes through Annette, and she listens, darting through the crowd just as a few shouts erupt around her. Suddenly everything races into chaos, with people screaming and running in all directions. Annette feels her body rush with adrenaline, and it feels as though for a moment time has stopped. She pushes her way through and breaks out of the crowd, only to trip on the root of a tree. Annette lands hard on her wrists and knees, sure that the pain would emerge later, but she pushes past it and scrambles back up to her feet. 

She ducks into a nearby alleyway and turns back to see a wall of police officers charging into the crowd. Batons descend aggressively. Some people are tackled, others kicked. Annette watches as a few more are forcefully handcuffed. They’ve seemingly arrived out of nowhere, descending on the crowd with a swiftness that was designed to cause chaos. They didn’t even declare the gathering a riot or announce any crimes, they simply attacked unprompted. A pit wrends in her stomach, and for a moment she considers rushing back in to help, but she knows there’s nothing to be done. 

A gunshot rings out through the crowd, causing another array of screams and panic to fly through the air. She turns and spirits down the alleyway as fast as she can, carefully checking every corner before turning. She runs and runs until her legs complain, and then she slowly winds her way home, taking a long and complicated widing route. 

Shit, who fired a gun? Annette wonders, her breath heaving. A shudder crashes through her as she wonders if anyone was hit. It was impossible to tell. If the police hit a protester, it would be a tragedy… but if one of the Mallets fired at the police… the repercussions would be bad. Horribly bad. 

Her adrenaline finally fades as she arrives on the edge of Mill Street, still a few blocks from home. She drops her hands to her knees and pants for air, scrambling to make sense of what she had seen. It wasn’t illegal to gather in groups, even if the group was a solidarity movement, but that hardly mattered these days. In recent years in Bellchester, the police were heavily employed to break unions and strikes, and today was likely no different from any other day for them. 

She quickly straightens her back and attempts to compose herself. She'd rather not have the possibility that someone connect her panicked run to the meeting if she can avoid it, so she continues the final steps to her home as casually as possible, still feeling her arms and legs tingling and her heart racing. She forces herself to remain calm and try and act proper, shoving her fear and fury down into a tiny place inside of her and quashing it. 

But when she steps inside of 167th Mill Street, Annette can immediately tell that something is wrong. The home possesses a tense and anticipatory air, as though the very oxygen she breathes contains a warning. She removes her coat slowly and strolls inside the first few steps, moving quietly and carefully. There’s no way it could be the police - it would be nigh impossible for them to have recognized her so quickly and beat her home. 

Annette steps into the living room and feels her muscles clench and her breath catch in her throat. Cordelia has finally emerged from her room for the first time in days, and she sits comfortably in her favorite chair, across from Simon and Sister Pullwater. 

“Good,” Cordelia mutters. “You’re home.” 

Annette forces herself to breathe, locking eyes with Simon and seeing the remorse in his pupils. He looks away, unable to hold her stare for long. Sister Pullwater frowns at her and crosses her arms tightly over her chest, and from their expressions Annette can immediately guess what has transpired shortly before she arrived. 

“Miss Jones,” Annette greets timidly, “You’ve left your study.” 

“I heard a knocking upon my door,” Cordelia answers with a painful absence of any tone, “and found that my collar had yet to answer it. I came downstairs to find her nowhere in sight, and took upon the task of greeting our guests myself.” 

“I apologize for neglecting to inform you of my departure.” 

“Take a seat, Annette,” Pullwater commands, gesturing for her to sit across from them, next to Cordelia. 

“What a pleasant surprise,” Annette croaks. “So good to see you, Deacon, Sister.” 

Annette sits, desperately trying to remain calm and steady. The combination of fear from the police and shame from Pullwater is unbearable, and she retrieves a chair from the dining room, lowering herself into it while trying to hide the trembling of her hands. 

“Annette,” Cordelia pips, “the two of them were just about to tell me something very important. They arrived not three minutes before you did.” 

Annette’s heart sinks. She’d have to be here for the reveal. She knew the consequences of her prior conversation with Simon would emerge at some point, but she had hoped it would take longer. She digs her fingernails into the palms of her hands.

“Simon,” Pullwater clears her throat, “Why don’t you begin?” 

He nods apprehensively and turns to face Cordelia. “Miss Jones,” he begins, “I’ve come to you today to speak with you regarding an important proposition.” 

“Do continue.” 

“At Sister Pullwater’s introduction, I have been getting to know dear Annette over the past week or so, and I feel an important calling from God regarding the condition of her life.” 

“Is it entirely necessary that Miss Jones be-,” Annette attempts, but Cordelia raises a hand to silence her. 

“Fret not, Miss Baker,” she interjects. “I always have time for our dear clergy. Please, Deacon, tell me more,” the detective smiles. 

“There are many important callings within the life of one who follows the sacraments,” Simon rambles, “and God sees fit to call us to them along the precipices of new endeavors-,” 

Deacon,” Pullwater interrupts impatiently. 

“Of course,” he coughs. “Miss Jones, I should like to purchase your servant’s contract from you.” 

Cordelia tilts her head and raises her eyebrows. She looks over to Annette, reading the terrified look on her face, and casually responds, “Not for sale.” 

“But, Miss Jones, I am happy to pay it out in full.” 

“Annette’s contract is not for sale.” 

Annette continues sharing a look with Cordelia, smiling gratefully. Cordelia’s face remains neutral and disaffected. When she speaks, her tone is strictly matter-of-fact. Annette can feel her heart pound against her chest and bounce in her ears. She continues glaring at Cordelia with a guilt-ridden expression. She said no.

“Very well,” Pullwater shifts in her seat. “Simon, please inform Miss Jones of Miss Baker’s transgressions.” 

“Transgressions?” Cordelia asks, turning back to the pair before her. 

“I-I can tell her inst-,” Annette attempts.

Ahem,” Simon’s nervous voice chimes. “At the Hasting’s Ball, I suspected something might be amiss after my conversation with Miss Baker. A small accident occurred with another guest, Lady Deveroux, and when the two of them departed from the party, I followed them.” 

Annette sinks her face into the palms of her hands, feeling her whole body tremble with guilt. There was nothing to be said or done at this point. There was no escape from this moment. She prepares herself for the dreadful punishment that was sure to be coming. Once again, she feels like a young girl, awaiting the holy judgment of the Sister’s, and the condemnation of her soul.

“I… erm… stumbled across them…” Simon clears his throat nervously. “They were engaging in… ahem…” 

Cordelia looks back at Annette, who peaks out between her fingers. “I believe I can fulfill the remaining details, Deacon. Is this true, Annette?” 

“Yes,” she croaks weakly. 

“And so,” Cordelia turns back to Simon, “you wish to purchase her contract to spare me this scandal? Who else knows about it?” 

“Just the people in this room and Lady Deveroux herself,” Simon nods. “We hope that we might return Annette to the care of St. Bartholomew’s where we can give her the help she requires.” 

“No,” Cordelia answers quickly. Annette bolts upright, confused and relieved. She tries to share a gracious look with the detective, but Cordelia remains fixed upon the Deacon and ignores her. 

“But, Miss Jones, this could-,” 

“Annette is indispensable in my service. I shall handle her punishment and corrections myself, Deacon. I thank you for informing me.” She stands from her seat, gesturing for the two of them to rise as well. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I have some words to share with Miss Baker.” 

Simon looks panicked as he rises, baffled by Cordelia’s rejection. “Annette,” he pleads, “this is your only opportunity to be redeemed by-,” 

“If you’ll allow me to see you out,” Cordelia interjects. 

Simon drops to his knee, pulling a small ring out of his pocket. “Marry me, Miss Baker!” 

Annette stands suddenly, angrily glaring at the ring in his hands with deep offense. Cordelia smirks, staring back at Annette with an amused expression. “Do you have an answer for him, Miss Baker?” 

Annette turns to Simon. “Absolutely not.” 

“Annette, I beg of you to consider-,” 

“I believe Miss Baker has supplied you with an answer,” Cordelia declares. This time she does meet Annette’s eyes, and her emerald irises seem to twinkle.  

Simon panics and stares back at Sister Pullwater, begging for her support. She stands as well, scowling at Annette. “Miss Baker, I have watched over you your entire life, shepherded you though your entire rebirth, taught you everything you needed to know about being a woman… and this is how you repay me!? You are squandering everything that I have given you. You’re throwing it away for a life of sin!” 

“Sister Pullwater,” Cordelia says loudly, “Deacon Billings. I believe you are now officially overstaying your welcome. Please exit my home.” 

“I’ll not be-,” 

Immediately,” Cordelia cuts back, “If you’d be so kind.” 

Cordelia extends her arm, guiding them out into the front hallway and out the door. Simon turns back on the front steps, as though to make one final plea, but Cordelia slams the door in his face. 

Annette stands at the far end of the hallway, holding her hands nervously in front of her chest. She rocks back and forth, feeling her anxiety pour over her as Cordelia remains in place at the door for a long, tense moment. She can’t breathe, the air feels trapped in her lungs. 

But, when the detective slowly turns around, Annette is surprised to find her smiling and laughing to herself. 

“Miss?” Annette steps forward nervously. 

Cordelia’s laugh grows louder, soon turning into a booming cackle. She doubles over, throwing her hands to her knees and gasping for air between joyful laughs. She continues for a long while, hardly caring for Annette’s nerves. 

“You… you…” Cordelia attempts between rushed breaths. “You’re… a lesbian!?” 

Annette feels a lump in her throat. “... yes,” she answers quietly. 

Cordelia lets out another thundering cascade of giggles. “And… and you didn’t… didn’t think to… to tell me?” 

“How was I to-,” 

Cordelia raises up a hand to stop her, slowly rising and leaning up against a wall to steady herself. She coughs a few times and clears her throat, shoving down her laughter and staring at Annette with an incredulous glee. “You let me agonize over your judgment of my character… for four days, and never once… never once thought to tell me?” 

“I wasn’t sure how to-,” 

“Christ, Annette,” She wipes a tear from her eye. “I was afraid I’d lost your friendship forever. But this whole time you were a lesbian as well!? And with Samantha Deveroux!?” 

Annette shares a weak smile, feeling her fears fade slightly. “I was worried about what you might think of me.” 

“Christ,” she shakes her head in disbelief. “You managed to seduce Lady Deveroux… how on Earth did you pull that off?” 

“In truth,” Annette purses her lips, a little proud of herself. “She did most of the seduction.” She stares at Cordelia for a moment. “You’re not mad at me?” 

“Oh, I’m furious,” Cordelia scoffs. “But also proud, I think?” She shakes her head incredulously. “Christ, that was fun.” 

“Fun?”

“How often do I get to slam the door in the face of a Deacon?”

Annette is quiet, her face flashing between a wide and unknowable range of emotions. “You said you were proud?” 

“It doesn’t matter,” she dismisses. “For now, let’s put the other night behind us, agreed? I should quite like things to return to the way they were.” 

“Yes, Miss Jones.” 

“Uh-uh. Call me Cordelia.” 

“Miss?” 

“There’s no escaping it, Annette,” she insists. 

“Escaping what?” 

“We’re friends.” 

“We are?” 

“Yes!” Cordelia smirks. “We are. Or, at least I think so.” 

“I’m still your servant.” 

“And do you like it here?” 

Annette is quiet for a moment. “Yes. I do.” 

Cordelia strides forward, placing an affectionate hand on Annette’s shoulder. “Then we’re partners in this, now.” 

“Partners…” Annette smiles. “And yet I cook for you, clean for you, investigate for you, shop for you, and wear a collar. A strange partnership indeed, don’t you think?”

“And I pay the bills,” Cordelia chuckles. “Fair trade? How different is that from most marriages, eh?” 

“I’ve already rejected one proposal today. Don’t make me reject another,” Annette threatens jokingly. “For what it’s worth… I am sorry for how I behaved the other night.” 

“Apology accepted.” 

“That’s quick, don’t you think?” 

Cordelia is quiet. “I… I don’t have many friends, Annette. None who have been willing to stick around once they see beyond the veil, so to speak. Perhaps… perhaps I’m eager not to lose another.” 

Annette steps away and drops back into her chair, taking a few deep breaths. 

“Why the hesitation?” Cordelia asks, leaning up against a nearby wall.

“It isn’t about you, I swear.” 

“Then tell me.” 

She looks up at Cordelia, briefly annoyed by her forwardness. There was no hiding from Cordelia, especially the way she was used to hiding from people. It’s such a habit to withhold herself, to present only a modest and polished front to her. But there’s always been that part of her that wants Cordelia’s respect, that wants her trust. She sighs. 

“I… I’m still reeling from the possibility that you may have just severed my connection with the Sisters. Sister Pullwater especially.” 

“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” 

“It’s supposed to be.” 

Cordelia is quiet for a moment. “But now you feel… untethered?” 

“I suppose?” Annette shrugs. She holds her hand before her face, frustrated that they are still shaking. “What if they’re right?” 

“Fuck them.” 

Annette gasps, surprising herself. 

“They’re wretched hypocrites,” Cordelia dismisses. “Cast them aside. They’re so desperate to control you because they’re afraid of the person they know you are.” 

“And that person is…?” 

“Better than them.” 

Annette smiles weakly. “Thanks.” 

Cordelia grins, stepping away and throwing her hands onto her hips. “Friends?” she asks excitedly.

“Friends,” Annette nods gratefully.

“Now,” Cordelia strolls into the dining room, “why don’t you tell me where you ran off to today. I can see in your eyes that it's something fascinating and important. I can’t wait to hear that you’ve somehow stowed away on a pirate’s vessel, or consorted with the governor’s daughter!” 

Annette wraps her arms around her chest, steadying herself for a long few breaths. She waits until the tremors of fear dissipate, then tries to release herself from the terrifying, destabilizing feeling of severing herself from the church. A small part of her, tucked away sheepishly, dances elatedly at the idea that Sister Pullwater might finally be removed from her place of influence inside of her. 

Cordelia throws open the window, allowing Harold to flutter inside, cooing affectionately. She strolls back out into the hallway with him on her shoulder, one of her fingers happily scratching the side of his beak. 

“Coming, Miss Baker?” 

23