Chapter Fifteen
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Apologies for such a delay on this chapter. I found myself struck by an unexpectedly powerful bout of writer's block combined with a difficult few weeks at work.

On top of that, we are now moving towards the ending stage of the book, where I get to have the challenge of trying to tie everything together that I have set up. I've spent a great deal of time mapping and remapping my story ideas, and it's proving to be a difficult task. It's coming together, and I truly hope that you find it satisfying and rewarding of the investment you've put in reading this work. 

Your support in reading and commenting on this work has meant a great deal to me, and I truly appreciate you coming alongside me on this journey      :)

 

 

Chapter Fifteen 

Annette awakes to the sound of water dripping into a little puddle, echoing politely across the cobblestone walls. Just a simple drip… drip… drip… 

A different droplet of water falls across her nose, sliding down her face and over her lips before drifting down her chin. She scrunches up her face as it moves, reaching up to brush it away with one of her arms only to find them tied behind her, locked against a metal pipe. She struggles against it for only a moment, before Jarl’s voice picks up from across the room. He sits perhaps fifteen feet away, lounging next to a modest fire set in an old metal barrel, leaning over and whittling a small piece of wood. On the ground next to him, easily close enough for him to swoop up with hardly a breath of time, is his revolver.

“My father was a unionist,”Jarl says, his voice low and thoughtful, “he worked at a steel factory all his life. He came to Bellchester with nothing and was given nothing.” 

Annette gazes around the stone room, seeing little trickles of water through small cracks in the walls and forcing herself to take steady breaths through the cloth gagging her mouth. The air is musty and damp, and if she were to wager a guess, she’s somewhere in the sewers underneath the city.

“That factory beat the life out of him daily,” Jarl sighs, “you could see it in his eyes, in the way he drank, in the way he yelled at my mother. It was killing him, eating up his soul and replacing it with soot and ash and coal.” He takes a long breath, letting his shoulders rise as he does. “So, he figures something must change. He joins a forming union.” 

His knife makes a long stroke down the wood, smooth and skillful, shaving off a long strip of the grain. “Do you know what the Barons did?” He looks up at Annette, meeting her eyes for the first time and sending a cool shiver down her spine. “It’s nothing wretched, have no fear. They moved the workers to a new factory across the river, a nicer one. They even set up a ferry across the river to get to and from work each day.” 

Annette listens quickly, though behind her back her hands fumble with her bindings. It’s rope, thankfully, but it’s thick and coarse. Even if she had a knife it would take some time to cut through, and Jarl’s tied the knot in such a way that it is out of reach over her hands. She slowly rotates her wrists around the metal pole behind her, hoping to carefully shift the knot closer. 

“One day,” Jarl continues, “my father is going to work, taking the ferry like he’s been doing the last couple weeks. He’s involved in the union less and less, partly because some of them are snobs and partly because the new factory is an improvement. He even enjoys the ferry ride, despite the fact it takes longer. He says it’s peaceful. Well, on this one day, the engine explodes and takes the ship down. Anyone not killed by the fire drowns in the river. No survivors. A convenient end to an inconvenient union.” 

He drops the piece of wood onto the ground and twirls the knife around in his hands, letting it dance across his palm effortlessly. He gazes over Annette’s form, watching her struggle softly against her restraints. “We’re well below the city, in parts of the sewers even the rats don’t know about. Scream, fight, it doesn’t matter. I have questions, and you’re going to answer them.” 

Annette stares down the fire in his eyes and nods slowly, gulping back her fear and trying to let her mind work out an escape. Jarl stands, moving towards her and removing the gag over her mouth. He pulls his chair closer to her, scooping up the revolver as he does, and plops down into it. 

“Who have you talked to about the Mallets?” He tilts his head, glaring at her. 

Annette takes a steadying breath, fighting to keep her voice calm. “What sort of talking might I have done?” 

“Anything.” 

“Outside of Mallet's members?” She asks and Jarl nods impatiently. “Cordelia Jones.” 

“And?” 

“I negotiated with Mister Wemberley.” 

Jarl leans forward. “What did you tell him?”

“Nothing that would incriminate anyone but me.”

“Liar.” 

Annette shakes her head, nervously eyeing the revolver between his palms. “It’s true. He was only interested in upkeeping collar service. The escapes we staged made his investors wary of his business, and in publicly recapturing me he could steady their fears. That was the deal we made. No information.” 

If Jarl has further thoughts on that, he remains quiet. He looks away, speaking as he gazes over the stone walls behind her; and somehow, as his eyes leave her form, he feels even more dangerous. “Everything you said about your owner; that she hit you, beat you, was a drunk - all a lie?” 

“Recovering alcoholic.” 

“Chainlaid?” 

“Technically,” Annette winces. “We do box together for sport now, as well, so I suppose she does hit me-,”

“Shut up,” Jarl rolls his eyes. He faces back towards her, raising the pistol and allowing it to ask his next question for him.

Annette shudders and fights her restraints for a moment, only to force herself to calm down and speak instead. She talks quickly, hoping to let her words be her defense. “Cordelia and I were investigating a death!” She exclaims, staring down the barrel. “Henry Rosen. His trail led us to you, so I joined the Mallets to find out why he was willing to die.” 

He points the gun forward, closer to her. “And you learned what?” 

“Died in the 8th Street Factory Fire,” Annette gulps. “He set it because he wanted to end the Baron’s grip on labor. He was an idealist, ideological. His pseudonym was Maccabbe because he liked the stories of their revolution.” 

“And your investigation ended?” 

“Yes,” she nods quickly. 

“How much does Cordelia know about our operations?” 

“Very little.” 

“Define ‘little.’”

Annette nods quickly, taking another hasty breath. “When I ran away from service I actually ran away. No contact with her until the raid on Wemberley.” 

Jarl leans back slightly, providing just a little reprieve from the threat of a bullet from his weapon. “I want specifics.” 

“She knows we freed collars. She knows about Bembrook’s death and the fire.” 

“Did you tell her names?” 

Annette grimaces and answers, “Yours, Failinis, Patrick, Guy, and Marian.” 

“Has she learned any real names?”

Annette shakes her head. “Only Marian, and only because she doesn’t use a pseudonym.” 

Jarl purses his lips to think for a few moments. He stands, returning to the small fire as Annette shivers from both fear and the chill of the damp, dark room. The light flickers as the fire licks the edges of the barrel, and his form casts a large shadow over the wall. She returns to slowly trying to edge the knot closer to her, but with little success. 

“So I am to believe,” Jarl muses aloud, “that you remained because you were converted to our cause? I believe that’s bullshit.” 

“It’s true!” 

He frowns at her. “You wish me to believe you spied on us for an owner, then joined because your heart was moved, then left and never came back?”

“You would have killed me had I returned!” Annette scoffs, leaping forward slightly only to feel her bonds hold her back. 

“And I would have been right to do it,” he mutters.

“I didn’t return because you would have killed me, and now I’m a traitor for not coming back to die?” She furrows her brow, once again frustrated by the singularity of Jarl’s focus. It was one of his great strengths, that he could compartmentalize and narrow his focus, and simultaneously it was his greatest weakness in Annette’s eyes. 

“I’m willing to die,” he spits back. 

“By the Barons.” 

“Everyday I accept I might die in the struggle to defeat them. What else is there but this?” He glares at her, pouring forth his dedication into his next word. “Nothing.” 

Annette scowls. “But would you die by friendly fire?” 

“If Failinis tells me to jump in front of his revolver, I’ll jump. I’ll ask him to shoot me twice just to be sure.” He shakes his head and steps away from the fire, slowly pacing around the small room. “You don’t understand because you aren’t consumed by the struggle like the rest of us are. If I fight the Barons, I die. If I live under their rule, I die. You, on the other hand, ran happily back to your oppressor. You’re wearing her goddamn ring around your throat!” 

“I’m surviving!” She protests. “Do you think I’m in service by choice? It was that or starve, or freeze, or be killed by anyone who wanted the thrill of murder. How is that any different?” Jarl doesn’t answer, instead taking to scowling at Annette with a heavy brow. She groans and adds. “And after the raid on Wemberley, it was return or die by your hand!” 

“Then you should have died.” 

“For what purpose?” Annette leans forward again, struggling to rise to her knees. “A vague appeal to honor amongst comrades? What is gained by my death?” 

“Justice.”

“Vengeance,” she rebuts. 

“Synonymous in the fight against tyrants.” 

Annette struggles forward even more. “So you’d do what, exactly? Throw away lives endlessly until the Barons topple under the weight of blood and gore? Until there’s no underclass left standing for them to oppress? Shortsighted.” 

“It is necessary.” 

There’s a brief pause, and Annette feels a bubbling passion and offense in her chest. She hates the black-and-white thinking Jarl always operated with, and the inflexibility of his outlook. 

“I didn’t betray the Mallet’s, Jarl.” 

He gazes at her for a long time, hardly moving, his eyes locked onto hers. It’s impossible to read his expression, locked behind an icy stare and a firm brow. It isn’t even as though he is testing the validity of her statements or the truth in her tone, he simply watches. 

“Then I have a task for you,” he says quietly. 

“You’re not going to kill me?” 

“Would you like me to?” 

“What’s the task?”

He fiddles with the revolver in his hand, not aiming it, but simply drawing her attention. “The Mallets work on leverage and action. Words mean nothing. If you wish to prove your innocence, and your conviction, then you shall return to the first task I required of you. The one you never completed.”

The meaning settles on Annette like a rock in her stomach. “No.”

“I am offering you an opportunity to clear your name and be reinstated.” 

“She isn’t a Baron,” Annette complains. 

His eyes flick down to her collar, and the ring sparkling in the light of the fire. “She owns a contract.” 

“She isn’t evil!” 

“You need not be evil to do evil.” 

“I won’t do it.” 

Jarl storms forward, throwing a leg onto the chair before her and sneering down at her. “Do you think revolution will be bloodless?” He shakes his head and quickly adds, “No, don’t answer that. Do you believe that the blood spilled by uprising will be more or less than the blood spilled by industry as normal?” 

“I won’t hurt -,”

“It isn’t about Cordelia,” he sighs. “It isn’t even about you. It is about reshaping society from the ground up.” 

“I am not your enemy, Jarl,” she pleads. 

“You don’t need to be on their side to be my enemy,” he spits back. “It is you squeamish ones who hold us back. It is your constant pleading for us to stay our blades that holds us back.” 

“I celebrated Bembrook’s death.” 

“And yet pardoned the Deacon.” 

“So?” Annette frowns.

Jarl peers down at her, his voice measured and quiet. “Since you did so, it is as though Failinis has lost his nerve. How many Barons have we felled in the last few months? None.” 

“We started freeing collars instead,” she retorts. 

“It isn’t enough,” he dismisses. “That may be all well and good, but it doesn’t overthrow their society. It doesn’t make the Baron’s fear us!” 

“Yes, it does!” 

“Not for their lives. They’ll expend countless resources to defend their property, but they’ll only ever negotiate with a bloodied sword at their throats.” 

Annette frowns and gives him a glowering, dismissive stare. “So go kill them.” 

“I intend to,” he affirms. “As will you.” 

“You don’t need me.” 

Jarl flashes a grisly smile. “You are a symbol to us just as with Wemberley. If you take up arms, Failinis will return to our old strategy.” 

There’s something beyond Jarl’s words prickling at Annette, something locked carefully behind his icy glare. Without her appealing to focus on freeing servants rather than assassinations, Jarl should have no issue convincing Failinis of his methods. And yet, Jarl went out of his way to pursue Annette instead. Had he lost favor? Did he make some sort of error? What was his motivation?

She takes a long breath and places an extra confidence into her expression, speaking with an assured, knowing authority. “You do need me.” 

He gestures the revolver at her. “So you will comply-,”

“Not for that reason,” she deflects. Her brows lower perceptively. “There’s something else, isn’t there? Something you’re not telling me.”

Jarl doesn’t answer, choosing to turn away and face the fire instead. 

“Tell me,” Annette implores. “I can help you.” 

“Clearly you cannot,” he spits back. 

“Jarl, I am not your enemy, and neither is Cordelia,” she asserts. At the base of her neck, she feels her spine tingle ever so slightly - so slight that she cannot even be sure that it was truly occurring. It’s as though her mind was slowly igniting, racing forth with a clarity that brought forth connections she couldn’t substantiate but that she knew must be related. 

“Enough of this-,”

Annette interrupts quickly. “How did the police know of the Wemberly raid?” 

Jarl tenses, though tries to hide his reaction. Annette restrains her proud smile as he turns back around. “You’re grasping at straws.”

“So you feel it too,” she concludes. “There’s something wrong. Something isn’t adding up and you know it.” She squares her shoulders and places as much certainty into her words as possible. “Someone ratted us out, and it wasn’t me. You want it to be me because that’s a simpler answer and an easy solution, but we both know it wasn’t.” 

“We are moving into a point of no return,” Jarl says quietly, pacing away thoughtfully. “Pieces are coming together for the Mallet’s next move. Some too easily, some with far more difficulty than expected.” 

“Failinis doesn’t know you think there’s a traitor,” Annette concludes.

“I am the overcautious protector,” Jarl shrugs. “I am simply playing my part.” 

“Jarl,” Annette shakes her head, “I am with a detective. If you are worried about treachery amongst the Mallets, let us help you.” 

“That’s a ridiculous-,”

“We’ve infiltrated the Mallets once before,” she continues, “and you didn’t catch us. We could uncover things you would never find.” 

Jarl fiddles with the revolver in his hand, turning it over and over as he thinks. There’s a surprising uncertainty in his presence that is uncharacteristic for Jarl, a man who was usually painfully assured of himself. Annette readies herself, aware that when he was out of his element he was unpredictable, and thus dangerous. 

“No detective,” he says at last, his brow furrowing at her. “But you will assist me.”

“It’ll be easier if Cordelia and I can work together-,”

“I said ‘no,’” he spits. “Consider this a stay of execution for her, but I will not endanger our missions by bringing a complete outsider into our midst.” 

Jarl strides over to her and drops down to his knees, his face contorted into a clear warning. Annette feels the barrel of the revolver press into the underside of her chin and holds her breath, trying to force down her fear. 

“I offer you this,” he whispers, pushing the metal deeper into her skin and resting his finger on the trigger, “I will restore your place amongst us, and in return, you will assist me in protecting our interests. If you decline, or disobey any of my orders, or I have any hint you might be working to undermine me, I will have Cordelia killed. Painfully. Publically.” He twists the revolver into her once more. “I’ll make you watch.” 

“Born in different circumstances,” Annette croaks, “that sort of threat would make you an effective Baron…” 

Jarl smiles, grim and foreboding. The pistol lowers from her chin, and a few moments later Annette can feel a blade saw through the coarse rope binding her hands behind her. She falls forward slightly, but quickly recovers, standing tall and stepping away from Jarl. He rises to his full height as well, still towering over her, and points the revolver at her once more. 

“Will you comply?” He asks, tilting his head as though begging her to test him. 

“I will follow your lead,” she gulps. 

 

– – – 

If she were with anyone other than Jarl, Annette would crack a joke as they approach Merlin’s workshop once more. It would be clever and coy, some sort of remark about the familiarity of the experience and returning to him with a collar around her throat, but she suspects Jarl is in no mood to be tested. She holds her breath and stays her tongue. 

Merlin’s beard parts to reveal a smile as she approaches, and the old, burly man leaps up to his feet as they arrive. “Red!” He exclaims, striding towards them. Merlin pauses for a moment in seeing Jarl beside her, seemingly unsure if he was allowed to be excited by her presence. “What’re you doing here?” 

“Testing to see if this collar can survive two escapes,” Annette quips, though keeps her voice low and restrained. 

“Come on over,” Merlin waves, “and we’ll get that ghastly thing off you-,”

“No,” Jarl interjects.

“No?” 

“Red keeps the collar,” Jarl glowers at her, his brow furrowed deep and mournful. 

 Merlin frowns and plops back down onto his heavy stool. “She’s joining back up, is she? Let’s get it off.” He nods sympathetically to Annette, who smiles weakly back at him. 

“Tell her about Winchester,” Jarl deflects bluntly.

Merlin cocks an eyebrow, tilting his head and gazing between the two of them. “I’m not in the business of keeping collars leashed, Jarl,” he says in a low voice. “It’d only take a second to free her-,”

“Red is on probation,” Jarl holds up a hand. “Until we fully settle some unresolved issues, she keeps the collar.” 

“It’s alright, Merlin,” Annette pips up, raising a hand to cover the ring at her throat. She wonders how long it’ll be until Cordelia will notice she’s gone, and how long until she’d be able to hunt her down. She’d been able to keep some distant tabs on Annette the last time she joined the Mallets, but Annette isn’t sure how much freedom Jarl would give her. 

“It isn’t right,” Merlin shakes his head. “No one should be in-,”

“I’m fine,” she interrupts. Annette sighs and grips Cordelia’s ring tightly, yanking it off of her neck and breaking the small metal loop that kept it affixed to her collar. She steps forward and deposits it into his large hand, closing his fingers around it and saying, “Consider this a first step in the process. Ring first, the rest of it later.” 

Merlin keeps his frown, but stomachs his complaint. He nods slowly, gripping the ring and tossing her a sympathetic look. 

“I’ll want that back,” she grins weakly. “It belongs to someone special.” For a moment, she considers telling him to bring it to Cordelia so that she’d known Annette was alright, but Jarl’s harsh glare at her back dissuades her. She sighs and retreats back to Jarl’s side. 

“Winchester is a… well, something we don’t understand,” Merlin huffs. Jarl pulls up a seat alongside him, and directs Annette to do the same. “It’s a name that popped up without much explanation, and something didn’t seem right.” 

“It’s not an uncommon name,” Annette shrugs. “What’s so unusual?” 

“We found it on a letter,” Merlin explains, “well, not the name. We found a seal on a letter that led us to the name. It’s some noble family, from just outside the city.”

“There’s plenty of those.”

“Shut up and listen,” Jarl scolds. 

Annette resists the urge to roll her eyes. “What was in the letter? And where did you find it?” 

“Just a copy of Hammer and Spike and nothing else,” Merlin shakes his head. 

“So… we’ve a sympathizer in the nobility?” Annette tilts her head. “Or someone watching us?” 

“We got it from the hands of a courier that we intercepted on the way out of the city,” Merlin continues. He reads the concerned look on Annette’s face and replies, “He’s fine. We paid him off to stay silent.” 

“I still don’t understand why this has worried you both so deeply.” 

“It was an issue of Hammer and Spike we haven’t published yet,” Jarl says curtly, and Annette feels a small tremble descend down her spine. Jarl reads her reaction and replies, “Good, so you understand the concerns we have now.” 

“What is the issue about?” 

Jarl pulls the envelope from his coat pocket, careful to open it in such a way that doesn’t wrinkle the crisp paper at all. He reads, “‘Mallets Capture Wemberly, Announce Public Trial.’” 

“We didn’t capture him-,” Annette begins, but the look on Jarl’s face silences her. “... We’re trying again, aren’t we?” He nods. “Tell me everything I need to know.” 

Merlin begins to speak, but is interrupted by Jarl. “Absolutely not,” he shakes his head disdainfully. 

“How am I supposed to investigate if I-,”

“You will be taking the place of this courier and delivering the letter,” Jarl directs. “Merlin believes he has sufficiently replicated the wax seal, and I’ve had Arthur replicate the handwriting on the outside envelope.” 

“They’ll notice if the courier has suddenly developed a case of ‘being a woman,’” Annette scowls. 

“So you’ll go in disguise.” Jarl passes the envelope to Merlin, who begins the careful work of reapplying a new wax seal. “I want to know who exactly is receiving the letter, and if possible their reaction to it. If there’s a response, if there’s a knowing look, anything, I want to hear about it.” 

“How much time will I have?” Annette asks. “Before we make our next move?”

Jarl waves away her question, directing her back towards Merlin. He leans in towards the burly man, whispers what appears to be a threat, and storms away, leaving the two of them behind. 

“All things considered,” Merlin puffs out a low breath, “it’s good to see you, Red.” 

“You, too,” she sighs. 

“Address is on the envelope, can you find your way there on your own?” 

Annette takes it from him, studying the fancy script for a moment and formulating a route towards the destination. She nods. 

“Good, good,” he sinks down into his stool. He pulls out the ring she gave him and offers it back to her, but Annette shakes her head. 

“It wouldn’t be safe to have it with me,” she says, a little somber. 

“I don’t like seeing you collared,” he grumbles. “It isn’t right.” 

Annette touches her hand to the leather band. “It’s…” She sighs. “There are married women in far less comfortable and endearing places than I am with this.” 

“I’ve heard people whisper you’re a… ahem,” Merlin clears his throat and looks away awkwardly. “Ignore me.”

“It’s alright, so long as you don’t look at me any different.” 

“Part of the cause, aren’t you?” He nods to himself. “That’s what matters.” 

Annette takes a long look around the area, briefly scouring to see if Jarl might still be near. She doesn’t see him, and leans in closer to Merlin, feeling a foreboding prickle in her chest. “If… if anything happens to me, Merlin… bring that ring to 167th Mill Street. Please. And… and tell her the name ‘Winchester’ as well.”

“Red…” 

“Please,” she takes his hand and squeezes it. “You know I’ve never betrayed us. If anything happens to me, this might give her some peace of mind.” 

Merlin’s eyes read the seriousness and sincerity in her face, and he nods slowly. 

– – – 

 

Annette catches on quickly that she’s being followed nearly the whole way there. 

Her chest has been tightly bound with cloth wraps to flatten it, and further covered with a heavy coat borrowed from another Mallet, and her courier’s cap obscures her hair, but she’s sure that any deeper level of scrutiny would cause the disguise to falter. She’d spread some dirt on her face, careful to have it obscure some of her slightly more feminine features without looking as though she was a street urchin, and occasionally along the walk she tests out dropping her voice lower to make it passable.

She notices the first person shadowing her once she’d left the central and market districts of Bellchester. At first, it seems to be simply a coincidence - there were plenty of paths one could reasonably walk in the city that would lead to similar destinations as a stranger. But, as she begins to take deliberately incorrect turns, she notices her follower continues popping up. Annette takes a long breath and tries to keep her cool, ready to rely on her meager boxing experience at a moment’s notice. 

It’s less obvious she’s being followed as the city melts away into the countryside, with its single cobblestone path amidst rolling green hills and patches of small forest. The Winchester residence was only about two miles outside of the city, and she’s grateful not to have an abhorrently long walk, but the presence of another traveler a few hundred feet behind her is unsettling. She’s not the only one on the road - there’s a constant trickle of people coming too and from the city - but she’s abundantly aware of her shadow. 

She spends more of her time than she’d like ruminating about who he might be. Is he someone sent by Jarl to ensure she completes the task? Might he be with the police or some other agent working against the Mallets? Might he have noticed a difference in couriers or a delay in the message and have been sent by the nobility? It’s difficult to say. Annette only notices his disappearance as she arrives at the small side road that leads up towards the Winchester estate. 

It’s on the path towards the estate that she stops at a small pond and stares down at her reflection. The disguise feels like a pitiful attempt to hope that a noble won’t scrutinize her appearance too closely. She sighs and removes her cap, letting her short, red hair drop back down into curt waves. She ruffles it slightly to make it more stylish, and sighs once more. 

She debates internally her next course of action and comes to a decision that feels like one she may regret. She carefully reaches under her shirt and removes the bindings keeping her chest flat and gives up the attempt to pass. She washes the dirt off her face and does her best to look as appealing as possible. Jarl may have wanted her to pass as some scrawny boy set to deliver letters, but that was unlikely to reward Annette with any real information. If she arrived as herself, she’d be a scandal, and scandals get attention. 

Annette takes one last look at the pond and opens the top buttons of her collared shirt, allowing the leather band of her service to display prominently. She tucks her hands into her trousers, assured in the reality that a notorious escaped collar in pants and short hair would stir up something. What could not be accomplished by subtlety might be successful when paired with drama. 

She arrives at the front doors of the large estate and knocks loudly, squaring her shoulders and standing tall, then taking one final look behind her to confirm that her follower was gone. The home is a large, white mansion with thick columns and a heavy brick roof. The lawns out front are neatly manicured, stretching out far around the home itself. An ornate marble fountain spits out water next to the driveway. 

The door opens, revealing a polished butler. “Greetings. What business brings you to Lamishton?” 

“A letter,” Annette bows her head and retrieves it from her coat pocket. The butler frowns at her appearance, his eyes flicking down at her trousers and resenting the absence of a skirt. “For the Lord of this estate.” He sticks his hand out to grab it, but Annette quickly pulls it back. “I’ve been informed to bring it to him directly, and under no circumstances am I to allow it into the hands of any other.” 

The butler seems to restrain a grumble, and after a tense staring contest with Annette he relents, stepping aside and waving her across the threshold. She smiles as she enters, following him as he directs her up the grand staircase just inside the main hallway. Her boots echo lightly across the stone and marble halls, each wall decorated with a gorgeous portrait of some member of the Winchester family, and Annette admires the skill of the painters. Each seems fancifully realistic, and it's hard to believe some of them aren’t living and breathing. She stares at one at the end of the hall, a stout young man with red hair and a mean frown, and wonders if it almost seems familiar. 

“Lord Winchester,” the butler calls into a small dining room, “a letter to be delivered into your hands alone.” 

“Indeed? Bring it forth.” 

The butler steps aside and allows Annette into the room, shutting the door behind her. Annette takes in the sight of Lord Winchester, himself also a stout and strong man with a thick, manicured beard. He’s middle-aged, styled in the attire of someone who was not military himself, but who seemed to admire the aesthetic greatly. 

“From where does this letter come to me?” He asks, his voice regal and poised, almost ridiculously so. 

Annette allows a light smirk to decorate her face as she places it on the table before him. “I believe it will be evident in just a moment.” 

Winchester frowns, grabbing the letter with his thick brows furrowed. He sets aside his reading, adjusting his glasses and opening the envelope with a mixed curiosity. Annette waits for him to read for a few breaths, and then his head pulls up to face her, his confusion notably departed from his expression. 

“You’re not the usual fellow.” 

“I was sent in his stead,” she answers. 

“Clearly you were not instructed of the decorum,” he shakes his head disapprovingly. His eyes flick up to her short hair. 

“I presume you recognize me?” 

“Oh, yes,” he nods slowly. “I was under the impression your wayward, rebellious nature had been corrected already. You’re supposed to be back in proper service.” 

Annette reads his face quickly and takes a risk. “And I still am.” 

Winchester’s eyes widen and he looks modestly surprised. “Indeed?” 

“Indeed, my Lord.” 

“He didn’t tell me she was involved.” 

“She has been for quite some time,” Annette replies, hoping she understood his meaning well enough to continue. “Do you have a reply that I ought to carry back with me?” 

“No,” he shakes his head once more. “No, not yet.” 

“Am I to wait for your reply?” 

“I’ll not have that tone with me, Miss…” he waves his hand impatiently for her to fill in the gap.

“Baker.” 

“Baker,” he grunts. “Couldn’t remember from the papers. I’ll not have that tone with me, Miss Baker.” 

“Of course, Lord Winchester.” She bows politely. “When might I expect to carry back your response?” 

“Sit,” he gestures to the sit across from himself. Annette furrows her brow, but slowly lowers herself into it. “And be quiet.” Winchester rises and retrieves a parchment, an inkwell, and a quill from a nearby cabinet, bringing them back to the table and sitting down once more. 

“I have a verbal message to pass along as well,” Annette teases, hastily developing a plan of action and hoping her instincts weren’t leading her astray. 

“Quiet is not your strong suit, is it?” He huffs. 

“My owner finds silence tedious and uninstructive.” 

He grunts disapprovingly. “And the message is?” 

“Simply that all is moving forward as expected,” she smiles, relishing the frustration washing over his face. 

“Right,” he coughs. He buries himself into writing a response, and Annette allows him some peace this time. She turns away as though to look out the window, attempting to steal glances at his parchment, but the combination of reading upside down and his tiny, scrawling print makes it impossible. 

“Have you any understanding as to why this issue of their pamphlet was brought to you?” She asks. 

“Is such knowledge truly within the business of a collar?” 

Annette smirks and leans back in her seat, allowing herself to don the air of someone whose importance equals his. “Ah, an unfortunate error in your thinking, my Lord.”

“Error? How dare-,”

“The collar is hardly more than symbolic,” she gazes around the room, as though he was of little importance to him, “meant to maintain my secrecy. I remain quite active in all my endeavors, as you are with yours.” 

“You were publicly collared in the presence of Mister Wemberley himself,” Winchester furrows his brow incredulously. 

“All the better to remove suspicion, wouldn’t you think?” 

“I suppose.” 

“‘Mallets Capture Wemberly, Announce Public Trial,’” Annette repeats. 

Winchester slams a soft hand down onto the table. “You’ve read it!? How dare you open this correspondence-,”

“My lord,” Annette sighs, “I have read it as I was instructed to. He asked me to, so that I might enquire what we may expect from your response.” 

“He told you to?” 

Annette nods, still unsure of exactly who they were speaking of. Winchester seems baffled, and clearly worried; she’d successfully broken out of the expected interaction, and now he seemed to understand that there was something peculiar afoot. The key now was to redirect his caution towards a different target than herself, and all she needed was to bluff her way through for long enough. 

“Why wouldn’t he?” She glances back at him, letting her eyes flick over his form and ensuring he sees her size him up. “Ah, yes, of course, you are so taken aback by the presence of a collar you cannot see the larger picture. I’ll be sure to inform him you are so easily susceptible to such misdirections. He’ll be pleased.” 

“I’m no fool,” Winchester lets out a long sigh. “I’m simply being cautious.” 

“As is your right, and duty,” she affirms. “But things are moving quickly now, and it is urgent to ensure you are prepared for what comes next. Tell me of your understanding, so that I might report back that all is in order.” 

A tension hangs in the air and Annette hopes she hasn’t strayed too far. Winchester's eyes flick back-and-forth between Annette and the letter he is composing, a sour look decorating his face. 

“I… hmm…” He mutters. “I am insufficiently informed of your credentials to say anything further,” Winchester concludes at last. 

“It is of great importance that I-,”

“And Darrius can correct this issue when I speak with him next,” he huffs. “For now, I believe I have requested silence from you.” 

“Time is of the essence-,”

“Enough!” Winchester leaps up, slightly banging against the table as he rises. “I require focus to write a response, and I’ll not continue to be interrupted by a disorderly woman in pants. Pants, for Christ’s sake!” 

Is that truly your highest concern at the moment? Annette grumbles internally. She forces herself to stomach her frustrations and move forward. She makes mental note of the name ‘Darrius,’ filing it away as an important detail for later. “Very well,” she bows her head. “Is there somewhere I could wait for you to compose a response, Lord Winchester?” 

A smug grin crosses his face for a moment, and Winchester nods. “Oh, yes. I am sure my other guest will be greatly annoyed by your attitude as well,” he nods as though coming to a brilliant solution to two problems. He steps into the hallway and calls for his butler, who arrives to curtly escort Annette to a lounge room down the hall. 

Annette celebrates the modest success of her acting, thrilled to have gleaned at least a little more information about his connection to the greater mystery, despite not having much to clarify exactly how. She briefly muses what the level of risk it would incur to break the seal of the letter he was composing now so that she might read it on her return journey. 

She steps forward into the room, thanking the butler as she does, and is surprised to hear the graceful sounds of a piano being played in the corner. For a moment, Annette revels in the delight of a skilled musician, playing some classical fugue with expertise. But, as the door closes behind her and she arrives fully into the space, the melody halts abruptly, replaced by the pained sound of a discordant and agitated chord. 

Annette lets out an amused and disbelieving laugh, closing her eyes and wondering how on earth her luck could be so… well… She isn’t sure of the word. It was certainly something. 

“Lady Deveroux,” she bows her head. 

“Annette…” Samantha stands, frowning deeply. “What are you doing here?” 

“I suspect I’ve arrived early to a scolding I was not aware I’d be receiving today,” she jokes and drops down onto the nearest couch. 

Samantha halts in her place, sizing up Annette with a judgmental glare. “Between the short hair and the trousers, one might think you’re regretting your second birth,” she spits. 

“I felt it was time for a renovated appearance,” Annette sighs. 

“This is Cordelia’s influence.” 

“Most assuredly.” 

“You look hideous.” 

“She seems to have few complaints.” 

Samantha frowns deeper. “Are you…? Are the two of you…?” 

Annette smirks and lets out a low chuckle. “It’s been quite some time, Lady Deveroux. How is your dear husband? So masculine and devoid of feminine features. You must be so satisfied.” 

She storms closer to Annette, face flushed with fury and looking as though she might hit Annette if it weren’t for the potential consequences of assaulting someone else’s collar. “You have some nerve.” 

“I suspect I am simply letting the humor out of my system before I am inevitably harmed in some terrifying way by you,” she shrugs. “Either by words or your closed fist. Be warned, she’s been teaching me to box.” 

Samantha seems to force herself to settle slightly, annoyed to have let Annette’s words get under her skin. She quickly thrusts her disdain behind a wall of politeness and takes a seat across from Annette. “So you’re a radical now? And I thought Cordelia’s response to losing me was overdramatic.” 

“She left you.” 

“Not mutually exclusive,” she rebuts. “A re-collared radical… fitting and poetic.” 

“Have no fears,” Annette waves a hand, “my owner has been sure to harshly correct any deviant nature within me.” Samantha frowns, looking over Annette’s appearance once more. “The results of such corrections are presently inconclusive.” 

“What brings you to Lamishton?” 

“I could ask the same to you.” 

Samantha stares her down for a moment. “I am visiting with my sister-in-law and her husband on business,” she supplies. “They are presently out on a visit to another friend in the area.” 

“I would be delighted to tell you why I’ve come here today,” Annette nods, “but I fear the story is beginning to feel too convoluted to reply on quick company.” 

“So you are here to stir up trouble,” Samantha concludes. “How lovely.” 

“I’m afraid trouble is simply a side effect of my presence today. Unless you’ve any collars of your own you would like me to attempt to free,” she smiles mischievously. “Such an activity would bring me great joy, and you great frustration, and as a result, bring me greater joy.” 

“I recall a time where you were helplessly devoted to me.” 

“As you were with Miss Jones.” Annette takes a long breath, hoping the parallels of the situations would fully dawn upon Samantha. “If I recall, your sister-in-law is married to Baron Hayle himself, of Benton & Hayle Oil & Steel.” 

“He is a baron of industry only,” Samantha corrects. “He possesses no landed title. It is incorrect to address him as such.” 

“My mistake. At a certain vantage point, all money appears the same.” 

Samantha leans back into her seat. “So that is your thinking then, Annette?”

“I’m not sure I take your meaning.” 

“Yes, I was the daughter of a collar,” Samantha sighs and glares out the window. “Perhaps you even believe me a traitor to my previous class and status, plenty of my peers now resent me for such humble beginnings. Whereas my heartbreak pushed me to ascend to a higher station, one of duty and purpose, of nobility and social respect, your heartbreak has placed you on a quest of vengeance against me simply because of my rise in station.” 

Annette restrains a snort of laughter. “I assure you this is not about you.” 

“Isn’t it? A noblewoman broke your heart and you cope by trying to tear down her world?” 

“Tearing down your lovely comfort is simply a side benefit of my interests,” Annette grins. “All that I am interested in is improving the conditions of life for everyone else.” 

“By reign of terror?”

“Is the side effect of industry not terror for the working man?” 

Samantha rolls her eyes and sighs once more. “Your thinking is so… so uneducated on reality, Annette. It seems to believe all of us to be monsters and thieves, but it is not so. You ought to stay for dinner and meet Mister Hayle. His passion for charity would surely sway your opinion.” 

Annette taps a finger against her collar. “I sincerely doubt I would be welcome at dinner.” 

“You would be welcome if I invited you.” 

Annette laughs in response. 

“This is funny to you?” Samantha frowns. 

“You’re serious?” 

To Annette’s surprise, Samantha rises from her comfortable couch and sits down onto hers, a respectable distance away, but close nonetheless. “Just because things ended in such a sour way does not mean that I despise you. In fact, I have been worried about you.” 

“Worried about me?” 

“You ran away from Cordelia and threw in with a lot of murderers and radicals, only to be captured and publicly humiliated in your return,” Samantha’s face shines with an unexpected sincerity. “Yes, I worried about you.” 

“I am quite alright,” Annette leans back, taken aback by the sudden change in tone from the woman.  

“And yet you are now repeating the very same dangerous ideas that brought you into such trouble with the law. You ought not speak like this, and not simply for the danger it may bring to you,” Samantha chides. “It isn’t good for your person to be so convinced of a backwards way of thinking. Mister Hayle and his companions in industry are no monsters. They provide an immeasurable service to society, employing thousands upon thousands of working people who would otherwise be in the streets or pushed into collar servitude.” 

“I thought you supported the collarhouses?” 

“As a prevention for starvation. But is it not better for a man to work an honest wage upon the sweat of his own brow?” Samantha rises. “I’ll make the request to Lord Winchester. I should like you to accompany us for dinner, so that you may see it for yourself.” 

“What if I should rather leave?” 

Samantha gently picks up one of Annette’s hands and pulls her to stand as well, holding it with a sweet tenderness. Her thumb rubs softly along the backside of her hand. “Stay, as a favor to me. I… I was not as pleasant as I ought to have been with Cordelia when we parted. Allow me this opportunity to right that wrong by showing you this kindness.” 

As much as Annette might resent the idea, the opportunity to sit across from a baron and attempt to learn more is too important to pass up. Even if Jarl might resent her for departing from the plan he set out for her, surely he would see the value in gleaning as much information as possible. The delay in her return might make him worry about her turning against him, and provoke his threats against Cordelia, but Annette feels confident he couldn’t be that foolish. He could just as likely conclude that Annette had been found out as a spy and killed by Lord Winchester to cover the tracks of whatever nefarious plan he was involved in. 

In either scenario, Annette ought to have time to stay. She meets Samantha’s eyes and nods, hoping that somewhere, across the large city, Cordelia wasn’t too terribly worried about her wellbeing. She’s sure Cordelia might even be proud to hear about the new hijinks Annette has somehow found herself in. 

22