There is a gentle trio of knocks on the door to Annette’s bedroom, but the servant makes no effort to rise from her bed. The curtains have been pulled shut, the lights extinguished. The covers, far more warm and comfortable than she feels she deserves, drape lovingly across her body. She sits alone in the dark wondering if that was her lot in life.
The knocks repeat, calmly and softly, devoid of any real sense of urgency. They were a simple tug from the outside world, gently there to remind Annette that her bedroom was not all there was. She rolls over and stares at the wall, content in her misery. After the second day of her mourning she’s sure Cordelia must be concerned, but that only peripherally matters to Annette. The detective was clever enough, she could surely piece together what may have occurred.
There is no third appeal to her attention, and eventually Annette can hear the soft shuffle of feet ascending the stairs to the third floor. She pulls the blankets even closer and returns to her muted sobs.
Some time later, she isn’t quite sure how long, the need for a bathroom disturbs her rest. Annette groans and grumbles, rising from the bed and feeling her cheeks wet and puffy, her eyes blinking out the remnants of tears. She finds a cloth to blow her nose, and then opens the door.
She nearly stumbles over it, but just outside of her doorway, someone has placed a small dish of soup and a slice of bread. It’s not quite hot anymore, the steam no longer rising from its surface, but it looks fresh and warm and smells of soft herbs. She pulls her face into a weak smile of gratitude and places it on a table inside of her room.
– – –
“You alright, Red?” Guy leans up against the printer, tucking his arms away into his chest and softening his face. Annette nods, unwilling to meet his eyes, and continues resetting the typeface for the next issue. This one reads:
Pemberley Rejects New Contracts; Posts Record Profits
“Uh-uh,” Guy shakes his head gently. “I can tell something’s the matter. What’s going on, Red?”
Annette sighs and shrugs, wishing he would simply leave her to work in peace. She isn’t even sure how she managed to drag herself to the print shop today. Maybe she wanted the distraction; but her interest in the case feels hollow at best, some remnant of a confused loyalty to Cordelia, as shaken as that may be at the present. Maybe it was the dedication to Mary Rosen that brought her out of bed, hoping that she could somehow provide a more satisfying answer to the cause of her son’s death. To Annette, it likely wasn’t enough to know that Henry died setting the fire. They needed to discover why he would risk himself so.
“Is it your owner again?” Guy nudges. There’s a sincerity to his concern that is at least comforting to Annette. He does seem to truly care about her condition, and that was more than she expected from a revolutionary at the start.
“No,” Annette exhales. “It’s… It’s a long story, Guy.”
“I’m all ears.”
Annette considers how dedicated to a lie she was willing to be. Her mind feels as though it was moving through jelly, and she doubts she could actually construct a satisfying explanation. “I’ve experienced a breakup.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” he says. “Was it mutual?”
“No,” she whispers.
“And I take it that it wasn’t your decision?” He asks, and Annette shakes her head in affirmation. “I’m sorry to hear it, Red.”
“I’ll be alright.”
“It takes time,” he consoles. “Can’t imagine any man foolish enough to reject the affections of a woman like yourself.”
Annette bristles a little at his assumption, but pushes it away. She instead deflects with humor, “If you are about to declare that you fancy me, it’s a poor moment for it.”
“Not at all. I’ve got it too good at home,” he chuckles. His fingers twist his ring absent-mindedly, and he smiles with the gratitude of a rare man who seemed to truly care for his wife. Annette appreciates the sentiment. “At any rate, perhaps I might be able to offer a worthy distraction for you.”
“I had a conversation with Jarl,” Guy begins, letting his voice dip lower into a more serious tone. Annette notices that he watches the door to the print shop carefully. “I mentioned our last conversation we had, and the passion you carry. He wants to speak with you.”
“Jarl wants to see me?” She repeats. Her head tilts and she buries her excitement. She didn’t know much about Jarl other than the fact that like the rest of them, it wasn’t his real name, and that he seemed to be higher in the leadership of the Mallets. Annette didn’t truly know how high, or even what the structure of the Mallet’s leadership looked like, but she knew it was a step upwards. “Whatever for?”
“I’ll leave that to him,” Guy explains.
“Am I in trouble?”
“Not at all. He sounded enthusiastic.”
“What might he want from me?”
Guy smiles politely. “I’ll leave that for Jarl to explain.” He takes a few steps towards the door and looks over his shoulder at her.
“Oh, Jarl wishes to speak with me now.”
“Do you need to return to your duties at home?”
“No,” Annette nods resolutely. “No, we should go.”
– – –
Guy leads Annette inside of the dock house. It’s old and beaten down, sitting just low enough along the waterline of the Fennes river that the occasional wave creeps up through the floorboards. It looks entirely out of use, and was the sort of building that after a short time of seeing it so decrepit, it would rapidly fade from your notice. It smells of rank mold and brackish water, and the odor of fish from the nearby market fills Annette’s lungs. Her guide leaves her at the door, passing along a final reassuring smile before allowing her to enter of her own volition. She thanks him quietly and steps inside.
It’s dark, only lit up by the feeble rays of sunlight through the holes in the shambled roof. A small boat sits in the center of the shack, long abandoned to repairs that would never come. A young man sits on a stool just beside it.
“I take it you’re Red,” his voice rings out. It’s surprisingly low for a man who seemed tall and lanky, and his large Adam's apple protrudes out and bounces with each word. He has long blonde hair that’s pulled up into a bun atop his head, and his face has dramatic, boney features, with a low brow ridge hanging like an outcropping above his brown eyes.
“Jarl,” she greets.
“Thank you for arriving,” he gestures to a stool just across from him. She makes note that in his position, Jarl would be able to watch the door, but she could not. She sits. “Tell me,” his strong brow lowers, “what do you think of our work thus far?”
“It’s powerful,” Annette places her hands in her lap, resolving to project confidence. There’s an intensity to his words and expression that is both unsettling and reassuring. “It’s good to be around so many people who care so deeply. I didn’t realize anyone else felt the way I did.”
“More than you’d expect, less than we need,” he shrugs.
Annette nods sympathetically. “Why did you want to speak with me?”
Jarl leans back and exhales a thoughtful breath. “To see if you’re one of the people we need.” He crosses an ankle up onto his knee. “Guy speaks highly of you, but we can never be too careful.”
“You want me to prove myself.”
Jarl looks over at the boat, extending his arms to rest along its rim like a backrest to a sofa. One of his hands picks at the chipping wood, and he watches it thoughtfully as he speaks. “Guy says you have an inquisitive mind. What do you know of the Mallet’s that we haven’t shown you?”
Annette ponders for a moment, deciding how many of her cards she was willing to play. She takes a breath and resolves to tell more than she previously was withholding. Jarl wanted trust, and she needed to give him that.
“It isn’t just a run for parliament,” she observes.
“What is it then?”
She crosses her arms over her chest. “I think you’re taking the fight to them.”
“Something I’ve noticed,” he tilts his head thoughtfully, only casually glancing from his hands flicking along the boat, “I don’t think you’re as frightened and shy as Guy seems to think you are.”
“I’m not,” Annette asserts.
He cocks his head back at her, suddenly letting his fierce eyes meet hers. “So why did you want us to think you were?”
Jarl drops one of his hands from the boat and pats it down onto his waist, where it meets something firm and metallic, obscured by his coat. Annette swallows her next breath and takes his meaning. She wonders if Guy likewise carried a gun as he watched the door outside.
“I wanted to infiltrate your group,” she replies, trying to remain calm and not think about the weapon nearby.
“To see if we were criminals?” His head leans slightly to the side and his hand settles on the outline of the gun. In Jarl’s eyes, there’s a terrifying sincerity and commitment.
Annette drops her hands into the pockets of her dress so that he couldn’t see them shaking, and attempts to place a more confident expression on her face than she feels. “To see if you are truly what I believe you are.”
“Someone who can hold the barons accountable. Someone who can be the justice that they constantly escape.”
“Then tell me,” Jarl smiles, though it’s a grim and empty one. “Based upon this metric, what is your assessment of us?”
Annette returns his grin. “I don’t believe the straw dummies in Docksims park were just dummies.”
She continues, leaning forward slightly and letting her interest in the investigation instead appear to be passion for the cause. “The one with the impaled eye. That was Mister Bembrook, wasn’t it?”
Jarl’s smile leaves his face and he returns to fidgeting with the edge of the boat, no longer staring her down. “Not many people would be able to make such a connection,” he says, a mild threat in his tone.
Annette’s heart putters quickly and she scrambles to give an explanation to account for the knowledge she possessed. For a panicked moment, she wonders if she’s made an error and overshared. She takes a deep breath and pushes the feeling down, replying, “A friend’s son was killed by Bembrook. It’s personal.”
“Mary Rosen,” Annette provides the half truth. “Her son, Henry, died in an accident on Bembrook’s dollar. He ignored Henry’s warnings.”
Jarl’s faint eyebrow pops at the name. “You knew Henry?”
“I know his mother,” she deflects.
If he questions her story, Jarl doesn’t show it. “So, you believe we might have a connection to Mister Bembrook’s demise?”
Annette leans forward even more, resting her elbows onto her knees. “I am sorely hoping you do.”
She lets the implications rest in the air as Jarl muses over her words. It was risky, playing some of her hand out in the open. He could easily deny it and push her away from joining the Mallet’s, or decide she knew too much and dispose of her.
He thinks for a long moment before returning to look at her and saying, “Tell me about your collar.” He taps his own throat to accent his meaning.
“It’s voluntary,” she answers. “I sold myself to get off of the streets.”
“Why were you there?”
“I’m not married,” Annette shrugs, then quickly adds, “If you’re about to tell me that I ought to have no shortage of potential suitors I’ll scream.”
Jarl chuckles and shakes his head. When he speaks again, still smiling, his voice carries none of the enthusiasm of humor. “Why are you single?”
Annette bristles. “Is my response required on this matter?”
He returns to picking at the boat. “You may always return to the print shop.”
“I’m a lesbian,” Annette sighs, deciding to take the risk.
Thankfully, Jarl accepts it as a complete answer and doesn’t pry further. If he has any feelings about the revelation, he disguises them well, casually moving onto a new line of questioning for his inquisition.
“Who owns your contract?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“I hear next week’s pamphlet is on the subject of Kereland’s coal miners’ strike,” Jarl replies nonchalantly.
For a moment, Annette considers telling the truth. But just as quickly as she considers it, she rejects the idea outright; it would be too easy for them to guess that Cordelia had sent her to investigate them and report back to her. In a panic, she replies with the first idea that comes to her mind.
“The Deacon?” Jarl’s brow pops. “I wasn’t aware he owned a contract.”
“I was traded to him.”
“Guy says he’s wretched to you. Does he hit you?”
“Then why do you resent him so?”
Annette looks away and supplies another easily constructed half-truth. “He’s chainlaid.”
“And you’re a lesbian,” Jarl completes.
She scoffs. “Even if I wasn't, I still wouldn’t return his affections.”
Jarl smirks and returns his focus to her. When he speaks, his tone has shifted towards a new direction. “The Mallets don’t operate on trust and good favor alone. Captain Beckett and his police would take swift advantage of such naivete,” he explains. “There is a place with us, if you desire it.”
“But not without cost,” she surmises.
“Not without leverage.”
“Is my lesbianism insufficient?” Annette grumbles.
Jarl shakes his head. “We have two tasks for you.”
“And what might those be?” She asks and leans back in her chair, trying not to seem too eager by the possibility of joining.
“First, we’ll go see your owner.”
Annette panics. “He’s away.”
Jarl pauses, pursing his lips as though deciding if he trusts her words. “And left you behind?”
“I feigned illness.”
“A keen actor you must be,” he muses. “When will he return?”
“Tomorrow. In time for Sunday mass.”
Jarl stands. “Then we will see you at mass.”
Annette remains seated and furrows her brow. “And what of the second task?”
He waves away her question, gently gesturing for her to exit the dock house. “It is precluded by the first.” He waits for her to rise, then shakes her hand and says, “Good day, Red.”
– – –
Cordelia chokes softly on her sip of tea, quickly returning it to its saucer on the dining room table. “Pardon me,” she coughs. “I must have misheard you.”
“I wish I could say you had,” Annette mumbles, resting her head down against the hardwood.
It’s quiet between the two of them for a few moments, which Cordelia spends thoughtfully staring out of a window, perhaps waiting for Harold’s unscheduled and typically inevitable return. She clears her throat and speaks again with a slightly different affect in her voice, “I’m impressed that you’ve still set yourself upon this case, all on your lonesome.” She takes a sip of her scalding tea. “Why have you?”
Annette listens to the clink of the cup onto its saucer and pushes her head a little deeper into the table, letting the cool, polished wood soothingly press back against her. She shakes her head softly.
“At any rate,” Cordelia moves along, “you’re on your feet and your spirit is ablaze with investigation. I suppose that’s all that matters.”
Annette tilts her head to the side and looks up at the detective. “Will you do it?”
Cordelia exhales and hides behind another sip. “Must I?”
“I’ll never gain entry without it.”
The detective looks out the window once more, possibly hiding from Annette’s serious eyes. “I’m not keen to lose you as an asset” she admits.
Annette’s a little touched, and she feels her head twinkle softly. After Samantha’s departure, Annette has decided to simply leave Cordelia’s past be and to move along. They’d yet to really speak since the dinner, but she’s grateful to feel the normalcy of their routine return, ever so slightly, a silent understanding passing between the two of them.
“Might you be content as a friend?” Annette asks weakly.
Cordelia is quiet, still looking out past the home and towards the sky. She holds the hot cup in her palms, and once again it seems as though the warmth doesn’t bother her. “I suppose that’s what friendship must be, isn’t it?” She sighs. “The trust that another enjoys your company enough to return of her own volition.”
“I don’t expect I’ll be gone forever,” she attempts to console her.
The detective meets her eyes and smiles weakly in gratitude, though her face soon after falls grim and it seems as though a concern has washed through her mind. “Are you really willing to place yourself within their path once more?”
Annette shrugs, her cheek puffing against the table. “I endured it before.”
Cordelia nods curtly, then lets her eyes drift away. “It’s so tempting to say ‘no.’”
“Miss Jones,” Annette pleads gently.
“You’re really not content to let sleeping dogs lie? You must see this whole thing through?”
“Y-,” Annette begins, only for Cordelia to quickly interrupt.
“No, take another moment before you answer,” she requests. Her brows furrow seriously and there’s a glimmer of something important in her eyes. “Is this necessary? Truly necessary? Will your soul be able to find peace if you were to step aside? Does this mystery insist upon your being?”
“I’m not sure I understand what you are asking.”
“You do,” Cordelia asserts. “Do you feel the feeling?”
Annette is quiet, and when she responds it’s barely above a whisper, almost as a defeated sigh of relent. “...yes.”
“Then you may go with my blessing,” Cordelia nods, satisfied. “I’ll draft up the papers and make the necessary arrangements immediately.”
Annett sits up from the table and smiles graciously. “Thank you, Cordelia.”
A single bark of laughter erupts out of the detective, and she halts herself from rising to stand. Her eyebrow raises accusingly at Annette. “It took farewell for you to finally abandon decorum?”
Annette smirks. “It isn’t really farewell.”
Cordelia grins and walks away to the stairs, presumably to rise up to her study and assemble the required papers to send with her. She stops, her hand resting upon the railing. Her face lowers, a little somber. “Annette?”
“Do come back.”
– – –
Like many proper girls who had the church thrust upon them from a young age, Annette could follow the movements of mass without a single thought given to the task. She could proceed from the readings to the prayers to the homily to the eucharist without any conscious effort, and mass often served as a surprisingly productive ground for her fantasies about the other girls her age. She used to grin and blush any time Rachel would meet their eyes across the pews, or stifle a giggle anytime Susan mimed a joke out of Father Thomas’ watchful glare.
The talent serves her well once more as her eyes roll over the stone columns and arches of St. Bartholomew’s. The worn wood pews push into her backs and the smoke from candles across the cathedral hall fills her lungs. She takes a breath, folding her hands over and over into her lap and wondering how much she was going to regret this decision.
At the very least Simon’s homily seems especially motivated this morning, and his voice bounces with far more energy than before. She can tell that he is carefully trying not to steal too many glances at her as he pontificates, though from the number of rushed and awkward breakings of eye contact, it’s clear that he is fighting a losing battle.
“And so, the mystery of which Jesus speaks of, as told by the Apostle Mark in his gospel,” Simon declares to the room, “is no such mystery to be left unsolved. Jesus provides an answer, inasmuch as he himself is the provision. The mystery of the Kingdom of God is quite nearly a misnomer, for Christ Jesus himself supplies both the question and the answer. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and ye shall find Christ. Seek first Christ, and his path of righteousness, and ye shall find everlasting life.”
Annette’s eyes glaze over as her shoulders shiver with the intimate judgment of Jesus’ watchful eyes, glaring down upon her from his crucifix. The first challenge was over - Cordelia had sent along the papers for her transfer late last night, and Annette had greeted Simon just before the mass was set to begin. She touches the collar around her throat once more, hoping desperately that its signal of Simon’s ownership would be thoroughly temporary. She can almost feel the weight of a ring upon her finger.
“Your owner is a poor evangelist,” Jarl mutters from the pew behind her, snapping Annette’s focus back to reality.
Annette resets quickly, muttering over her shoulder, “Supposedly all of us must possess gifts from God. I cannot fathom what his must be,” she shakes her head with as little motion as possible. “Why did you want to meet him?”
“We’re in a church. Let’s call it ritual.”
“Am I to accept weak wine from your cup as well?”
“Hmpf,” Jarl snorts. “Jesus said he came to free people, didn’t he? Well, that’s what we’re doing.” His finger lightly taps on the back of her collar.
Annette slowly accepts the subtext of his statement. A small part of her had expected that this was where his task might carry her. “There are simpler ways to-,”
“It isn’t about simplicity,” he interrupts. “After mass concludes, tell him you must speak with him alone.”
“Easy enough. He enjoys a post-homily walk beside the river,” she replies.
“Can he swim?”
Annette shrugs. “Not to my knowledge.”
“Good,” Jarl leans over the pew, reaching past her as though to grab the Bible stashed away in the little pocket in the pew in front of her. Instead, however, he quietly and casually deposits a rail spike into her lap. “I trust you can find a use for this.”
Annette shudders, feeling the weight of the iron in her hands. She quickly stashes the nail in the long sleeve of her dress, feeling her stomach churn. She was correct in her fears; initiation would require the price of Simon’s blood.
“Are you suggestion that I-,”
“Straw dummies,” Jarl whispers.
“I question your choice of target,” she rebuts. “He isn’t the same as a man such as Bembrook.”
“He’s a wretched owner, by your own admission,” Jarl’s low voice rumbles in her ear, and she bristles at her past lies. “And what is a priest but the robber baron of the congregation’s souls? Empty promises about riches in heaven; meanwhile he robs their wages to toss into the collection plates. I’m not suggesting anything.”
Just as she is about to reply, she hears the wood behind her creak softly, and he slips out of the pew and out of the church. She turns back and sighs, her fingertips trembling against the cool metal in her sleeve.
Is this worth it? She asks herself as Simon’s homily concludes. As the deacon leads the congregation in the creed, the words of faith drop from her emotionless mouth without any voice.
Are you truly going to kill a man?
“Hear, oh Lord,” Simon steps from the altar, lifting his hands to the congregation, who stand along with him, “the holy procession of your faithful. Hear, oh Lord, the cries of your people, the righteous and the sinners, the lost and the found.”
“Lord, hear our prayer,” comes the reply from the congregants.
If I do this, I’ll share in their guilt, a voice warns inside of Annette, though the realization quickly settles inside of her, which is what they want.
“For those who are mourning, we lift our prayers to the Lord,” Simon continues.
“Lord, hear our prayer.”
I could stop them, if I gain entry.
“For those who are hungry, we pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, hear our prayer.”
Perhaps Bembrook deserved it, but does Simon? He’s obnoxious, but are his sins really so great? She once again runs her fingers along the spike.
“For those without shelter or clothes, we pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, hear our prayer.”
This is the only way, she affirms, trying to steel her resolve.
“And for those who were lost, but have been found, we pray to the Lord,” Simon concludes, once again catching Annette’s eyes. He smiles.
“Lord, hear our prayer.”
This is the only way.
The eucharist and the closing homily pass in a haze for Annette, and with each invitation to sit or stand she can feel her legs shaking and her blood pumping. Her skin feels as though it tingles with electricity, and there’s a soft humming in the depths of her ears. As people slowly begin to file out of the church, she cautiously makes her way up towards the altar once more, waiting for Simon to finish bidding a congregant farewell.
“Miss Baker,” he greets her, inclining his head.
“Simon,” she croaks.
“I feel as though that was quite a good service,” he raises his hands and rests them on his hips with a contented air. He glances behind her, scanning the room, and asks, “Who was your friend?”
Annette swallows through her dry mouth, trying to force herself to focus. “He wasn’t a friend. Apparently it was his first visit to mass in years. He required some assistance with remembering the correct movements.”
“A pity he departed before the eucharist.”
“He never went through confirmation,” she lies.
“Inspiring to see him return nonetheless,” he smiles, then adds, “as it is with you.”
“Apologies that it was sprung upon you so suddenly,” she lowers her head and carefully tucks her arms behind her back, her right hand carefully gripping the spike in her sleeve.
“Not at all,” he rests a quick hand on her shoulder, then removes it just as fast. “It was a welcome surprise to be sure. Would you care to join me for a quick stroll, and then we might see about settling your things into my home?”
“I would be delighted,” she eeks out.
She follows him out of the church in a trance, each step feeling as though it carries her into a terrifying new oblivion. As she crosses the threshold of the church, she wonders which of her sins will eventually weigh heaviest on her scale.
“So,” Simon begins, setting upon his favorite walking path along the Fennes river, “tell me more about your decision to leave your prior condition. Did something occur that prompted you and Miss Jones to change your mind?”
Annette nods timidly. “Lady Deveroux and I parted ways,” she answers, and swears that Simon has to restrain a grin. “My performance in my duties declined as a result.”
“One part of me mourns your despair,” he tells her, looking out over the water, “While another celebrates the potential of something holy emerging in its stead.”
Annette quietly takes a glance behind her, and shudders to see that Jarl was indeed following them. He remains a significant distance back, but it is enough to affirm the necessity that she follows through. She swallows her displeasure.
“Your homily was an improvement upon the last,” Annette recounts.
“A joyful improvement indeed!” He grins. “I look forward to one day earning your uncontested approval.”
It’s too crowded, Annette decides. She would have to wait until they were a little farther along the path. “It is not readily given.”
“I’ll not expect it to be,” Simon nods, a pep in his step. “It shall keep my pursuit of excellence honest and ongoing.”
“I shall include ‘critic’ amongst my duties, then.”
Simon looks at her and smiles once more, affirmed by the implication that she would be staying. “Sister Pullwater will be so delighted to hear the news of your return. I regret that she feared you to be a lost and forever wayward soul.”
“Might I be the one to tell her?”
“I’m sure she would welcome it.”
Annette takes a deep breath, once again scouting around to see if the moment was right. A little longer, she pledges. “Is there any news of the young twice-born girl at the orphanage? Do you know what her new name is?”
“Judith,” Simon confirms, and Annette feels a little patter of gratitude in her chest. “I would encourage you to visit her and inquire about her well-being yourself, though I am afraid Sister Pullwater would likely deny it. I fear she will require you to earn back trust before such a moment.”
“I’m glad she’s well nonetheless,” Annette looks over her shoulder once more.
“Are you alright?” Simon stops, gazing back to follow her glance. “You seem apprehensive or concerned about something.”
Annette pushes down her nerves. “Simply burden with past guilt.”
Simon pauses, placing his hands into his pockets. “Annette… I believe this arrangement will be far more successful with your full honesty and cooperation.”
She releases a tense breath, meeting his eyes for a horrified moment. She feels the rough iron up her sleeve, trying to find the capacity within herself to act, only to come up short. Staring into his eyes, Annette can’t bring herself to do it.
“Simon, I need you to trust me,” she cautions.
Simon shakes his head. “If this is about your sexual immorality, then I’m afraid I cannot-,”
“It isn’t,” she interrupts, looking back down the path to confirm Jarl was still a sizable distance away. Annette turns back and hastily asks, “Can you swim?”
He scoffs. “I don’t see how that’s-,”
“Please. Can you swim?”
Annette nods, trying to once again build up her courage. She needs to act soon, lest Jarl grow suddenly suspicious. “I need you to hold your breath for as long as you are able,” she commands.
She steps closer to him, circling her fingers around the spike. “We need to be far downstream, understood?”
“What on earth are you-?”
Annette pulls the spike from her sleeve and slashes it down at Simon, careful to catch only the folds in his holy garments and not his body. As predicted, Simon panics, quickly scrambling to defend himself from her attack. She tries again, only for him to grab her wrist and grip it tightly. She struggles for just a moment, then throws her whole weight into Simon and tackles him over the railing, sending the two of them plummeting down into the water.
She’d underestimated the shock of the cold water, but it immediately knocks the breath from her lungs. It’s deep in this section of the Fennes river, and with the ten-foot drop into the water she plunges under the surface. Simon kicks and pushes against her, trying to break free, but each movement is sluggish and slow from his clothes dragging in the water. Annette feels the same struggle as the soaked fabric of her dress pulls her under, and she makes the quick decision to rip it from her body.
Once freed, she desperately paddles for the surface of the water, feeling the powerful current of the river drag them far from their entry place. She waits for as long as her lungs can tolerate before breaking through the waterline and gasping for air. Annette’s eyes race across the shoreline, trying to gauge how far away they were from their fall, then searches the water for Simon. He remains under the surface, and she takes a full breath and dives under to find him.
Annette is lucky that the search doesn’t take long, though resents that its conclusion is brought about by Simon grabbing hold of her ankle and trying to use her to rise for air. She reaches down and pulls him up into her arms, paddling fiercely to bring him to the surface. Even after she fights to bring him out of its depths and he sucks air into his chest, Simon continues kicking and swatting at her.
“Stop fighting me!” She yells, smacking him back.
“You tried to kill me!” He screams back.
Annette dodges a swing from his failing arms, and grabs ahold of it to steady him while his robes drag against the waves. “I saved you,” she asserts, tightly maintaining hold of the rail spike in her free hand. “Now shut up and stop fighting me!”
Simon gives in after a few more moments, though it seems less the result of trust than out of the realization that she was a stronger swimmer than he was. It likely wasn’t true, she hadn’t swam in ages, but without the hindrance of her heavy wool dress pulling her back, she’s far more mobile than he is. Annette lets the fast current carry them for as long as she’s comfortable, then quickly paddles to a nearby shoreline, hopeful that it’s far enough away from Jarl that she might escape his watchful eye.
Her feet finally settle upon the muddy floor of the river, her boots kicking up the muck, and she stumbles down onto the bank of the river, shivering from the cool air meeting the treacherous water on her skin. Simon follows suit, collapsing onto the rocky beach and coughing up water.
“What… What on earth were you thinking!?” He chokes out.
“I quite simply cannot explain it all to you,” she spits back.
Simon continues sputtering into the rocks, laying down and trying to steady himself. “Is this some sort of revenge?” His hands pound the gravel softly, and Annette notices that his glasses must be lost to the river. “D-do you want money? Because I d-don’t have money!”
“Shut it!” She stomps her wet boot, plopping down onto the rocks as well. “For Christ’s sake, just listen for once.”
Simon pulls his face up from the beach and glares at her, only to quickly avert his gaze in a panic. “Where are your clothes?”
Annette looks down at her soaked undergarments, surprised that the immodesty hardly bothers her. It’s an unusual look, a nightshirt, panties, and boots, but she shrugs and orders, “Just give me your undershirt.”
“How immodest would it be for me to-,”
“Simon,” she scowls.
He shakes his head and fights his flowing vestments. His body wiggles and squirms as he carefully removes his black, buttoned undershirt, meticulously ensuring that he doesn’t remove his outer robes as he does so. He tosses the wet garment over to her and she slowly puts it on, solely for the sake of avoiding nudity. It actually makes the cold air worse.
“Are you going to kill me?” Simon whimpers.
“Ask another question and see if I remain attached to my decision not to,” she threatens. “We don't have much time.”
“Are you in dange-,” he begins, only to quickly cut himself off.
Annette continues. “You need to go to the police, and tell them your collar tried to kill you with this,” she holds up the rail spike. It had taken a great effort to keep hold of it in the river, gripping it whilst fighting Simon, but she sets it down on the beach in front of him. “Tell them I attempted to use it on you and then escaped. Ensure they put out a warrant for my arrest.”
“W-why do you want this?” He asks, then sighs and relents. He continues averting his eyes; while the large shirt covers most of Annette’s hips and upper thighs, the rest of her legs surely are far too exposed for his comfort. “Okay,” he concedes. “Okay.”
“Thank you,” she struggles to stand up.
Simon does as well, his wet hair sticking to the sides of his face. He looks down at the floor, not meeting her eyes. “So… you’ve not decided to repent?” There’s a moving amount of disappointment in his voice, and Annette grumbles at the sincerity of his concern.
“Just… just go to the police,” she sighs.
Annette slogs her way up the rest of the bank, carefully peeking up to the street to see if there’s many people around. They were lucky enough to emerge in a quiet, residential zone of Bellechester. She pulls herself up, feeling her hands numb and buzzing, and slowly works her way through the streets. She’s lucky once again to notice a large robe dangling from a clothing line set out to complete drying, and throws it over herself. She shivers inside of it, and prepares for the long journey back.
– – –
Annette shudders inside of the Mallet’s print shop for a long while before Guy and Jarl return. They hadn’t agreed on any sort of meeting place, but she had hoped that sooner or later they would think to check up on this location. She huddles against one of the wooden columns that holds up the roof, fighting for the warmth to slowly return to her body.
“Lovely day for a swim, innit?” Guy chuckles, plopping down onto the ground to sit near her. Jarl leans up against the wall near the door.
“Is he dead?” Jarl asks, his voice cold and direct. If he has any concern for Annette’s condition, it doesn’t show.
“I… I’m not sure,” Annette hangs her head. “Once we went… Once I… ahem… I assaulted him once more in the river,” she says quietly. “But the current took me away from him.”
“You did well,” Guy pats her leg.
“It was sloppy,” Jarl cuts. “He should have been felled with your first blow.”
Annette coughs, feeling the brief till of fever in her forehead. “I wasn’t aware prior training was a requirement for my first murder.”
Guy smiles at her, then turns back to Jarl. “Go easy on her. She’s acted bravely enough.”
“We’ll see. At least it should get people talking.”
Annette takes a deep breath and blows it out onto her cold hands, appreciating the mild warmth. “You mentioned a second task would be required of me.”
Jarl nods. “Guy, bring her to Merlin.”
Guy sits up excitedly. “So she’s in?”
“Bring her to Merlin,” Jarl repeats, his voice void of any tone. He taps his boot on the wall, then slips out of the door to the shop, leaving them alone.
“Don’t pay him any mind,” Guy tells her, removing his coat and handing it to her. “He’s in a sour mood it seems. You’ve done well for yourself. How’re you holding up?”
Annette accepts the coat and throws it over her shoulders. “I feel as though my body might succumb to frostbite whilst my heart is working towards cinders.”
Guy groans as he stands, and offers a hand to her. “It’ll be warmer in Merlin’s shop.”
Annette nods and accepts his hand, letting Guy help her up. They head back out onto the street, and Guy slowly guides the two of them away from the print shop and back towards the more industrial district.
“It isn’t usual for an initiate to be expected to enact justice like that,” he tells her, keeping on roads that avoid most of the crowds.
“It seems I’m lucky,” she mutters.
“Welcome to the Mallets,” he shrugs.
Merlin’s shop appears to be a small masonry, with a few scattered kilns and piles of brick and dirt and cement all around the yard attached to it. Guy leads her behind the building to a small forge beside it, carefully checking to see that they weren’t followed. Sitting in a comfortable wooden chair is an older man with a thick beard and a strong arm, and he rises from his seat as they enter the area.
“I take it you’re Red,” he greets them with his grizzly voice, his eyes darting up to Annette’s red hair.
Annette smiles weakly and nods. “Is it still too late to select a better pseudonym?”
Merlin chuckles. “Scared of the Big Bad Wolf?”
“I’d rather be the wolf than Little Miss Riding Hood.”
The old man lets out a booming laugh, dropping his hands to hold his belly as he does. He smiles at Guy and bobs his head for Annette to take a seat by the warm kiln. She sits down gratefully, thrilled to finally be out of the cold.
“Let’s get you out of that ghastly thing,” Merlin announces, sitting down beside her. He lets out a soft groan, the noise of a man who could not help but make a sound upon rising or dropping into any chair.
Annette glances down at the large robe surrounding her. “I’m not wearing much underneath this,” she says, furrowing her brow.
Merlin taps his throat. “The collar.”
“Oh,” Annette sits upright, bringing her own hand to meet the leather. A strange amount of caution presses into her mind. “I… I wasn’t aware that was what was happening.”
“Jarl’s orders,” Guy affirms, dropping into Merlin’s wooden chair. “Your owner is out of the way, so there’s no sense in keeping you collared.”
Annette chokes back a surprising defensiveness. “It’s quite a serious crime to remove one.”
Guy chuckles. “Worse than murder?”
Merlin shrugs. “Do you want it off or not?”
Annette looks back at Guy, who nods supportively. She’s surprised by her own hesitancy at the suggestion of removing it. She’d had it for the better part of the last year, and while it chafed and tugged at her constantly, it was a strangely protective accessory. It did signify her place in an underclass… but it also signified that she had any place at all. People knew how to treat her and she could conduct her business within those bounds. Without it, on the street, she was just another wanderer.
She takes a breath and agrees, her voice quiet and somber. “Yes.”
Merlin smiles, pulling out a few sets of tools and going to work. He guides Annette to carefully protrude her neck and slices through the leather sheath, exposing the iron collar underneath. He produces another set of tools, a small pick and a strange tiny comb on a long stick, and goes to work on the lock set underneath the leather. Cordelia had previously held onto the key, given to her when she purchased the contract from Mr. Wemberly. Simon must have it now.
After about fifteen minutes of careful maneuvering, Merlin makes a victorious grunt and the lock clicks open. He opens the collar and slowly pulls it off of Annette.
“Welcome back to your freedom,” he grins.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
“Any preference on how I destroy this thing?” Merlin holds up the collar. “It’s pretty satisfying to melt them down and make ‘em into spikes or something.”
Annette reaches out and takes it from him, turning it over and over in her hands. “Might I hold onto it?”
“If you want, I suppose.”
Guy and Merlin stare at her, confused, and she quickly defends, “It’s a reminder of the power in escaping such conditions. I endured so much, and now I’m free.”
“All yours,” Merlin shrugs.
“You’re one of us now,” Guy stands and pats her back. “Welcome to the revolution.”