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Annette shudders as she arrives at the small cafe, wishing the day hadn’t decided to be so unseasonably cold. Even with gloves on her hands, shoved deep into her coat pockets, they still refuse to warm. The iron underneath her leather collar makes her neck chill, and with the specific rules of her service she wasn’t even allowed to throw a scarf over it to keep the heat in.
She sighs and pulls the cafe door open, strolling inside and dreading the conversation she was supposed to be having. Pullwater had once again demanded her presence, and to Annette’s frustration Cordelia didn’t seem eager to upset the Sister, giving Annette the morning to go meet with her. She spots Pullwater at a table by the window, a little ways away from other patrons, and drags her feet over to the Sister. Her brow furrows as she notices an unfamiliar man sitting beside her.
“Who’s your guest?” Annette asks, standing above the table.
“Good morning to you as well, Miss Baker,” Pullwater grumbles. She holds a hand out to the empty chair across from them. “Take a seat and join us.”
“Good morning,” the man greets her.
Annette smiles politely, though her eyes don’t join it. “Good morning,” she mutters and sits.
“It’s dreadful out there today, isn’t it?” The man asks, his voice polite and proper. He gazes out the window for a brief moment, then returns to staring at Annette’s shivering with sympathy. “Might I order you something warm to drink, Miss Baker?”
“No,” she declines, a mild hostility in her being.
“She’ll take a breakfast tea with one sugar and milk,” Pullwater says to him. He nods appreciatively, rising from his seat and making his way to the counter.
“I was under the impression you had summoned me simply for another scolding,” Annette mumbles, crossing her arms over her chest and grateful that the cafe was a comfortable temperature.
“Remove your coat, Annette, it’s dreadfully rude.”
Annette glares at her, deciding whether or not to take a stand on the issue. She decides to save her resistance for later and removes her coat, revealing a thick buttoned shirt and a wool dress over it. “Why have you summoned me, Sister?”
“After our last conversation,” Pullwater begins and Annette scowls, “I’ve decided I haven’t been active enough in properly pruning your manners into a respectable adulthood.”
“I am not your child, Sister,” Annette stares out the window away from her. “I do not require your lessons any-,”
“Would you rather I share your transgressions with Miss Jones?”
Annette’s face sours. She had only so recently earned back some of Cordelia’s respect, and while the detective never informed her of whether or not her search of Bembrook’s office yielded any results, she was clearly impressed by Annette. There was something crushing about feeling Cordelia’s disappointment in her; and as much as Cordelia hoped for her to be someone greater than she believed she could be, Annette likewise wanted to be that person.
“Indeed,” Pullwater clears her throat, satisfied. “I have a compromise that I believe will – ah, here we are,” she turns away from Annette, greeting the man as he returns with a cup of tea for Annette. He returns to his seat beside Pullwater, smiling pleasantly as she timidly retrieves the drink.
“Time for introductions then,” Pullwater nods, “Miss Baker, this is Deacon Billings. Deacon, this is Miss Baker.”
“Simon,” the deacon grins, nodding towards Annette. “You may call me Simon.”
“Annette,” she says in a low voice, taking a sip of the tea and appreciating the warmth of the cup against her thawing fingers.
“Deacon Billings will be joining the congregation soon, Miss Baker,” Pullwater explains, “in anticipation to fill a potential vacancy for Father Thomas.”
“You’re to be a priest, then?” Annette asks.
“Indeed,” Simon affirms, his voice chipper and amiable. “Though it shall only be under the condition of Father Thomas’ death, so I cannot say I am praying for it to happen.” He laughs cordially. “It feels odd to hope for a calling such as that, does it not?”
“It won’t be long,” Pullwater answers bluntly. “Father Thomas’ health continues to take a turn for the worst.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Annette mutters, though she doesn’t mean it. Father Thomas was boring at best and aggravating at worst. It was as though he believed every minute a mass could be extended somehow furthered the likelihood the congregants would be given entry to heaven. “Why am I here, Sister Pullwater?”
“Be civil, Annette,” Pullwater scolds. “That is no way to speak before a Deacon.”
“It’s no trouble at all,” Simon smiles. He’s the type of fellow who perpetually wears a polite grin. He’s tall, surprisingly tall; nearly a full head above Annette’s shoulders. He wears his brunette hair short and cleanly cut, just above a soft forehead and gentle face. While his eyes appear kindly and sociable, there’s an unexpected depth underneath the surface, and a pair of mersin escort wide glasses rest on his nose. He’s pleasant enough to look at, though wasn’t likely to turn heads outside of a crowd of repressed church women, whereby he would probably be highly desired. “You’re actually here on my account, Miss Baker. I do appreciate you taking the time this morning.”
“Am I? Whatever for?”
“Sister Pullwater, well, when she consulted me…” he clears his throat nervously, eyes flicking over to the nun beside him. “I believed, not that it was entirely my suggestion, ahem. She thought that… we thought that-,”
“It is time for you to marry,” Pullwater interrupts.
“Excuse me!?” Annette sets her tea down loudly onto its saucer, splashing some onto the table as she does. She can feel the veins in her neck pop and she sits forward with a sudden warmth in her face.
“It’s not as though we-,” Simon begins, though Pullwater interjects once more.
“I have endured your moral vagrancy for long enough, Miss Baker,” Pullwater scowls, lifting her hands onto the table. “After our last conversation, it is clear that you will not exercise your agency to your own best interests, so I have once again taken it upon myself to set you onto a proper path.”
“You have no right to-,”
“Shall I speak with Miss Jones, instead?” Pullwater threatens, pushing Annette into silence once more. “The Deacon has graciously offered to meet with you.”
“It is a pleasure, truly,” Simon beams graciously. “You are as beautiful as the Sister recounted.”
“Him?” Annette croaks, glaring at Pullwater. “You wish to affix my life to a priest?”
Simon chuckles, “Well, priest-to-be, in fact-,”
“I can think of no comparable option, Annete,” Pullwater asserts. “Who better to set you on a proper path for the rest of your time in this life, and the next?”
Annette scoffs, “I can think of plent-,”
“And he is aware of your situations,” the nun cuts. “Both of them.”
Annette’s face flashes bright red and she quickly averts her eyes from the two of them, glaring down at the table and the spilled tea before her.
“There is no cause to be ashamed, Miss Baker,” Simon contends, “I actually admire your decision to be born anew. It shows a true commitment to the truth of God’s creation and the honesty of your soul. And it is not necessary for a priest to sire an heir.”
She drops her face into her hands, embarrassed.
“And as for the other,” he coughs nervously, before returning to a kindly, pastoral tone, “It is entirely common to feel, ahem… stirrings in the flesh towards the same sex. The key is correctly aligning your actions to God’s plan for us.”
Annette glares at him, and then at Pullwater, and back towards Simon. She takes a few long, heavy breaths, trying to stabilize her shaking hands. She grits her teeth and mutters, “I thank you for your words, Deacon, but I believe I must take my leave now.”
She stands quickly and darts out of the cafe, pulling her coat along with her. Annette stumbles outside, fumbling with her coat and trying to pull the warm fabric back over her as she begins walking away. She stops after a few moments, feeling her injured ankle complain, and to her displeasure Simon uses the opportunity to catch up with her.
“I believe there may have been a misunderstanding,” Simon explains gently, his breath condensing in the cool air around him as he holds up his hands defensively.
Annette glances up from the streetlight she’s leaned up against, glaring at him with a clear frustration. “I don’t believe I have any further words to share with you, Deacon. I ask that you allow me to take my leave.”
“Is your foot alright?” His head tilts and he kneels down to move closer and inspect her ankle.
She pulls it away from him, wincing at the quick moment. “It is fine. Now please leave me be.”
Simon sighs, though remains in his position, head tilting up to meet her eyes. “I believe we may have gone off on the wrong foot, as it were,” he laughs at his own joke. “I have no intention of proposing today against your protests.”
“There would be many,” Annette confirms.
“I simply wished to meet you,” he explains, rising up and placing his hands into the pockets of his cloak, the white band of his smock flashing at his collar. “And to see if you might find me agreeable enough to avoid resentment.”
“I assure you there is no man agreeable enough that I woul-,”
“Perhaps wise not to voice such a thought so loudly and so publically, Miss Baker,” he shakes his head softly and lowers his voice. His smile softens and a timid sweetness glimmers in his eyes. “I simply invite you to keep your mind open. I have no interest in a coerced wife, and I shall not force you into any arrangement. But I fancy myself someone who might nobly protect you, both from the dangers of being an unmarried woman, and likewise from your own sinful inclinations.”
Annette turns away, unable to meet his gaze. She groans, wondering how mersin escort bayan committed he was to following her to explain his rationale. Perhaps she could successfully stumble her way home and be free of him.
“I could purchase you out from your contract,” Simon offers suddenly. “You wouldn’t need to remain in service to your current owner.”
“Good day,” she dismisses, taking the risk and stumbling from him, back towards Mill Street just a few blocks away.
“Good day, Miss Baker,” Simon sighs. “I hope we can meet again.”
Annette walks away and refuses to turn back. She touches a cold hand to the collar around her throat, a public signal of her obligations to Cordelia, and wonders how different a ring around her finger truly was.
– – –
Cordelia remains unhelpfully quiet regarding the results of Annette’s investigation, and she finds the silence infuriating. To have risked so much to attempt to recover the letter and not learn whether or not she succeeded at all feels cruel, and despite her best efforts to pull the answer from Cordelia the detective holds firm. After a few days without an answer, it’s difficult to determine if Cordelia was still working on the case at all. That is, however, until nearly a week passes and she suddenly declares for Annette to prepare her finest dress.
“I’m wearing it,” Annette complains, gesturing to the casual dress that filled out the bulk of her wardrobe.
“Nonsense,” Cordelia waves away her complaint. “Where have you put the corset and petticoat you wore on your first day? Don’t tell me we’ll need to replace them.”
Annette sighs, grumbling internally about needing to wear them. “I still have those, I just rather take issue with being so constrained by clothes.”
“Necessary evil,” the detective says simply. “You have a half hour to get ready.”
“Do hurry, Annette. We’ll already arrive an hour late; it’s best to time an improper entrance perfectly.”
Annette frowns for a moment, trying to read Cordelia’s face without success. She ambles upstairs, careful not to aggravate her ankle any further, and stumbles into her room to get dressed. When she does return downstairs, her lungs grumbling at the mild restraint from the corset, she’s surprised to find Cordelia has changed as well. She’s traded out her usual slacks and suspenders for a full tuxedo – long tails, top hat, and all. She’s styled her hair in such a way that it almost seems as though she cut it all off, only a small swoop drifting out from underneath the hat.
“… where are we to be going, then?” Annette asks cautiously.
Cordelia flicks the lapel of her coat, straightening it to align with her tie. “A ball.”
“A ball?” Annette’s brow furrows. “And why might we be going to a ball?”
The detective’s eyes light up excitedly. “For the spectacle, and nothing less.” She dips out of the front door without another word, waving for Annette to follow her. Annette does, curious and confused, and feels her surprise register once again to see that a carriage has been called for the two of them. Cordelia happily skips up the steps, throwing herself inside with a calm and casual demeanor. Annette follows a moment later, and the collared carriage driver closes the door a breath later and begins their trip.
“I have high expectations tonight,” Cordelia says, sitting across from Annette. “High expectations for you, to be precise.”
“I… what exactly am I to be doing?”
“Completing a test.”
“Of what sort?”
Cordelia smiles. “That’d spoil the fun.”
Annette holds her breath. “So this is another of your plots, isn’t it?”
“You say that as though it is a bad thing, Annette,” she gazes out the window quickly as the carriage continues on. “They have been hugely successful of late.”
Annette nods, feeling a sense of resolve build up inside of her. She wants to pass this test despite the uncertainty. Ever since the night of the railyard she has felt her confidence pour forth, and the possibility that Cordelia might be impressed provides more motivation than she expects. “What do I need to know in advance?”
“Excellent,” Cordelia grins, delighted by Annette’s resolve. “Simple holiday ball, put on by the Hastings family.”
“Holiday? It isn’t a holiday.”
“Veneration of some saint, I think,” the detective shrugs. “Can’t recall. The Hastings are particularly fond, so that’s their excuse.”
“And what am I to be tested on at this ball?”
“I need you to ask Lord Brimwell his opinion on fish.”
Annette scowls. “Fish?”
“Fish,” Cordelia confirms.
“And this Lord Brimwell… is this the same Brimwell that owns Trentchton Hall?
“The very same.”
Annette breathes out an excited puff of air. “So this is about Bembrook’s death? Did you find the second page?”
Cordelia places a finger to her own lips, smiling mischievously. “Simply ask Brimwell about the fish, Miss Baker.”
“I’ve never been to a ball before,” Annette shakes her head. escort mersin “Are collars even allowed?”
“Most of them will be serving the guests. You are my guest, so you are a special exemption. I’m sure plenty will do their part to voice their displeasure at your presence.”
Annette scowls. “So I’m to endure the scorn of gentry?”
“All bark, no bite,” Cordelia dismisses. “They won’t harm you.”
“And how exactly did you secure such an invitation?”
“From my father.”
The detective nods. “Lord Hastings.”
Annette chokes down her surprise. “… You’re nobility?”
Cordelia laughs happily, turning once again to peer out of the window for a few moments. “What?”
“What do you mean, ‘what?'”
“Why are you staring at me like that, Miss Baker?”
“Because I asked you a question and you simply laughed and ignored it.”
“It was funny.”
Annette frowns. “I must have missed the joke.”
“Truly? I’m sure that if you repeated it in the ball tonight you’d find the crowd in a delirious uproar.”
“So you aren’t nobility…?”
“I’ll add it to your list of tasks to figure out tonight,” Cordelia teases.
The remainder of the carriage ride passes in silence, and Annette takes her time to prepare for the ordeal. Her encounters with nobility, Samantha notwithstanding, had largely been unpleasant, and she wasn’t looking forward to stepping into the room with a visible collar. And given Cordelia’s jokes and overall reputation, she couldn’t imagine that walking in with the detective would make her particularly well liked.
The Hastings’ ball is held at the observatory, in its wide central atrium. As they step inside, Annette is immediately shocked by the scale of its grandeur, with colorful flowing curtains and flower bouquets and chandeliers and sculptures and artwork and an endless array of terrifyingly expensive things to look at. They stride in through the main doors, receiving a handful of dirty looks from guests at both their lateness, Annette’s collar, and Cordelia’s suit.
“Far right, back of the room,” Cordelia whispers, “with the balding head and burgundy pin on his lapel.”
“The very same.” The detective nods, gazing around the room with the confidence of a person who didn’t need to wonder what others might think of her. Cordelia knew well that she was disliked, and she wore it as permission to exist with the utmost freedom and poise. “I look forward to seeing you at work, Miss Baker.”
“So you’re just going to dump me here and wish me luck?” Annette frowns, crossing her arms.
“It’s all about the challenge,” she grins. “Rise to it.”
Cordelia strolls away, descending the stairs and joining the crowds mingling on either side of the dance floor. Annette nods to herself, trying to summon her courage to continue. While she had never jumped from a train car before investigating Bembrook’s office, the streets of Bellchester were at least familiar to her. Here, Annette was in no doubt that here she was far out of her depth.
And this was exactly what Cordelia wanted, Annette concludes a moment later, carefully strolling down the steps and feeling underdressed. Even in her nicest clothes, a plain dress, corset, and petticoat, she looked pitiful next to even the lowest lady here. But Cordelia clearly wanted to see Annette improvise and adapt to the situation, to use her mind to solve the problems of social nicety on the fly.
Her first consolation was that no one seemed to pay her much mind. There was the occasional distasteful glance, but so often the guests’ eyes would flick from her dress up to the collar, only to quickly turn away once spotting it. Perhaps they thought she was a chambermaid seeking her mistress, or a servant out of uniform, but regardless the collar provided a helpful level of invisibility. She finds a spot out of sight from most people and watches Lord Brimwell, trying to formulate an organic way to ask him the question Cordelia laid out for her.
“Miss Baker?” A man’s voice calls out behind her, and Annette slowly turns to find Simon standing a few feet away.
“Deacon Billings,” she mutters. “Why are-,” she stops herself, placing a more polite version of her question onto her lips instead. “How did you secure an invitation to an event such as this?”
“It’s a day of veneration for St. Windsor,” he answers cordially. “The Hastings family requested for Father Thomas to be in attendance… but, as you can imagine, he wasn’t feeling up to the task. I was sent in his stead.” Simon smiles warmly. “I return the question to you, I wasn’t expecting to see you here, though it’s a welcome surprise.”
“Here on orders from my owner,” she answers simply.
“Cordelia Jones, if I recall correctly.”
“I imagine Sister Pullwater told you,” Annette scowls. “Regardless, I must be goin-,”
“Would you care to dance?”
“Pardon?” Annette coughs.
“I should like the honor of dancing with you,” his eyes twinkle. “I assure you I am a surprisingly nimble partner.”
Annette restrains a smirk. “I would expect nothing less. Unfortunately, however, I don’t believe the dance floor is reserved for a collar.” She taps a finger on the band around her neck.
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