Correspondence, Concoctions, and Coaching [Uskweirs #4]

I wrote the first chapter of this as a sort of creative challenge, but the scene that made me want to keep going and turn this into a thing is in this chapter. Virus amantis equae, the most fascinating and most disgusting aspect of trans history I’ve yet to uncover. Hope you all enjoy… or recoil in justifiable horror.

Start reading The New Girl from Uskweirs at the beginning here.

Dearest Mother—

I hope this letter finds both you and Father well and in good spirits.  I myself have been blessed with good health in the last few months.

I write to inform you that my imagination has been seized as I have never experienced, my captor being the fascinating book Tour of Iceland.  The author, one Mister Hooker, describes the strange natural world to be found on that island.  I was seduced by a friend’s advance copy; it will be published in large numbers later this year.  But before that happens I have resolved to travel north myself to see these wonders with my own eyes.

As it is already well into summer, I had thought to delay until next year and travel in the spring.  However, I am seized with such a desire to see these wonders for myself—and perhaps to make my own small addition to the sum of human knowledge—that I cannot delay.  Whether that means I dash back to our shores ahead of winter storms or wait them out in some quaint ice-rimed cottage depends entirely on how much my entreaties are heard by whatever unnamed muse concerns herself with scientific inquiry.

I have secured the services of a Mister Julian Clark, a man of business who will handle my affairs while I am abroad and forward my correspondence to wherever I happen to be in the North.  I plan to move about, and do not want to make myself entirely unreachable.  I have enclosed his card and the address of his bank for you to use if you have cause to write me.  I am relinquishing my lease in London; letters posted there will not find me.

Do forward this news to Father, please, who I am sure would prefer a succinct mention over breakfast to an actual letter to read, and to David, who does not bother with such trifles as correspondence from inferior siblings.

—your youngest

Amelia read the letter full of lies a dozen times over, each time ending with her eyes resting on the bottom edge of the paper.  She had tried to will herself to sign the thing properly, but was experiencing difficulties.

When she tried to sign it with the name her mother gave her, Amelia’s fingers refused to obey.  Not even initials were acceptable to her writing hand.  And she obviously couldn’t sign it “Amelia.”

She could lie about developing an absurd scientific fascination and traveling to some icy rock to sate it, but not, apparently, her name.  A name that she’d only been using outside her own head for a single day.  But oh, when someone else called her by it… she simply could not let this feeling go.

On its own, “Your youngest” was accurate and clear enough, but her relationship with her mother was not a casual one.  Amelia could see in her mind’s eye the suppressed sneer and arched eyebrow that would float up her mother’s face upon reading such a valediction.

But she would never see her mother’s face again, she reminded herself.  What need had she of worrying about the reception?

Her mind nimbly leapt from the insoluable problem of her name to the insoluable problem of her future.  Ashbourne had counseled her, watching her with sad eyes, that she would have to leave the whole of her life behind, including her friends and family.  Total social death, as he called it, was the only safe way forward.

Amelia had no friends, she mused ruefully.  With Anthony gone, she couldn’t think of anyone she cared to keep in touch with, anyway.

While her family was hardly close, never seeing them again was a strange and daunting thought.  She could still write, of course, maintaining the ruse of an endlessly travelling English dilletante.  First she would say she was off to Iceland, and then elaborate some need to visit Lappland.  Once the war was over she would write “from Paris” or “from the banks of the Rhine,” all along an endless string of fictional travels.

But how would she sign all those letters?

“Ah, here she is!” Elizabeth’s voice rang out, “This way, gentlemen.”  The girl swung the library door open and swished into the room.  At her heels followed Ashbourne and a liveried servant bearing two tall amber-filled glasses on a tray.

Amelia folded up her insufficiently signed letter and moved to slide it into a breast pocket before remembering that she didn’t have one.  After a moment of hesitation, she simply set it aside.  “What’s this?” she asked, eyeing the oncoming tray.  “Beer?”

Elizabeth snorted.  “You wish.”  She sat down opposite Amelia at the small table she’d been writing at.  The two glasses were set down between the two of them, releasing a sickly-sweet miasma that made Amelia’s nose try to close itself up.

“This,” Ashbourne said as he settled himself into a nearby armchair, “is virus amantis equae.”

“It’s been some time since Latin drills,” Amelia said dubiously, “but that sounds like, erm… Randy Horse Poison.  Or is it named that because of the… the smell?”

“There’s a reason it smells like horse,” the other girl giggled.

Ashbourne cleared his throat with the tone of mild reproof.  “This preparation wrought the bodily changes in Mademoiselle d’Eon that brought you to us, my dear.  Elizabeth has been taking it twice daily for years, to obvious effect.  The only question for you, Miss Wright, is if you want to know what is in it before you start taking it.”

“It smells medicinal, which I suppose is to be expected,” she hedged instead of answering.  “Licorice?”  Amelia looked from grave Ashbourne to giddy Elizabeth. The girl’s eyes danced with amusement at the concoction’s barely-contained secret.

“In part.”  Now it was Ashbourne’s turn to hedge.

“It’s easier if you don’t know at first,” the other girl advised, and then the corner of her smile curled upwards.  “And funnier when you find out later.”

Amelia eyed the amber contents of the tall glass and the beads of condensation on the outside.  One clear bubble of water trembled before merging into its neighbor, then raced down the glass surface to the table.  “I think I need to know what’s in it first.”

“You’re no fun at all,” Elizabeth teased, putting on a playful pout and sitting back in her chair.

“Extract of licorice, as you noted,” Ashbourne said with a bob of his head.  “In a very strong spearmint and fenugreek tea, combined with concentrated urine harvested from pregnant mares.”

“Concentrated what?” Amelia couldn’t prevent herself from squawking in alarm, looking to the tall amber cylinders before her with sudden revulsion.

Elizabeth reached forward and hefted her glass.  “I’d say you get used to the taste, but… you never do.”  She grinned impishly, holding the glass forward as if to toast, and bounced her eyebrows.

“We have learned to chill it,” Ashbourne offered, “which makes it a little more palatable.”

But Elizabeth slowly shook her head.  “Don’t believe him.”

“Then I’ll stop ordering ice; it’s a huge expense.”

She looked over at her father fearfully.  “Oh please don’t, it’s ghastly when it’s lukewarm.”

Amelia hardly heard them.  Was she really going to drink this twice a day, and for the rest of her life?  It smelled terrible: now that she knew the contents, she could pick out the ripe, acrid scent of the urine underneath the sweet patina of licorice and mint.

“Smooth skin,” Elizabeth whispered to her over her raised glass.  The other girl was watching her, not like she was the butt of a joke, but like she was a lost kitten being coaxed out of a tree.  “Silky hair.  Cheekbones.  Big, bright eyes.  Breasts.  Even your sweat stops smelling bad.”

Amelia wrapped her fingers around the chill glass.  Lifted it.  Clinked it against Elizabeth’s.  And then she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and drank.

A moment later she set the glass back down on the table.  It made a loud plonk sound—Amelia’s focus was on controlling her gag reflex and not her fingers.  When she finally mastered her throat, she wheezed.  “Well, that tastes exactly as you’d expect.”

Elizabeth had also downed hers in two and a half gulps, and placed her empty glass next to Amelia’s.  “But it’s worth it, I promise.”

“I feel a very strange sense of accomplishment,” Amelia confessed a little sheepishly.  Possibility seemed to be welling up inside her.

“Oh, that will pass, and quickly,” Elizabeth assured her with a laugh.  “If you’re lucky, you’ll start to see changes before it becomes a chore.”

Amelia nodded and hazarded to ask, “How long until this… delightful preparation starts changing my voice?”

Elizabeth’s smile faltered and Ashbourne coughed.  “I am afraid,” he admitted, “this treatment does little for the voice.”

Amelia looked from the viscount to his daughter.  “But Elizabeth, you have a such a delightful voice.  Pardon my candor.”

“I’m inclined to pardon any complimentary commentary on myself, thank you,” the other girl said with a smile.  “But the fact of the matter is I’ve been drinking these since before my voice changed at all.  If one starts early enough, the voice matures in a feminine manner, you see.  But once the voice drops, this stuff can’t reverse it.”

“So I’m stuck sounding like this?” Amelia asked querulously, a sense of panic rising in her throat.  “If I look the part but don’t sound it—do I just pretend to be a mute?”

Elizabeth reached forward to put her cool hand over Amelia’s and looked to her father.  “Is Miss Cordelia still visiting?  I thought I saw her last night—or rather heard her—but I didn’t see her at luncheon.”

“Miss Cordelia’s short visit, which began nearly a month ago, continues apace.”  Ashbourne nodded ruefully, and then he tipped his head to the side, considering.  “But you’re quite right, she’s certainly capable of providing good help to Miss Amelia.  I don’t think she’d normally be inclined to provide it, but the… gentle pressure of unbalanced social obligation might convince her otherwise.”

Which is how Amelia found herself dragged through the house, one hand pinched in Elizabeth’s grip, as the younger girl scoured the rooms of the ground floor looking for their guest.  The search ended in a secluded library at the far end of the west wing, the walls lined with leather spines of hundreds of volumes warm in the golden afternoon light.

The room bore a single occupant, propped up in a window seat with a small volume open in her lap.  The woman was slight, with features too sharp and strong to be called aristocratic.  Striking, Amelia thought, would be the proper word.  Rich dark curls clung all around her face.  The woman’s white day dress bore subtle purple edging worked into the lace at collar, sleeve, and hem.  She did not look up as the two girls entered the room.

Elizabeth cleared her throat delicately.  “Miss Cordelia, may I introduce you to Miss Amelia Wright.”

The woman looked up from her book, which closed with a delicate but still audible thump.  Her features seemed to swim out of the otherworldly distraction of her reading and came to focus on Amelia with a palpable sense of stately grace.  Her lips twitched into an exquisite smile that communicated welcome and poise, along with the barest trace of amusement.

It was like looking at a portrait by a master painter, animated by magic to move.  Amelia stood transfixed.

“Ah,” the woman breathed, in a rich contralto that sent shivers up Amelia’s spine.  “The new girl, in more ways than one.”

At which all of Amelia’s wonder came crashing down around her ears.  Suddenly she was painfully aware of how she was standing, what she was wearing, the cloying itchy feeling of the powders across her face, the awkward strangeness of the curls at her temple.  Of course this picture of feminine grace saw right through her petty deceits.  Next to Cordelia, she was a dancing bear.  “Oh, ahm,” she stammered.  “Am I so obvious?”

Cordelia’s eyebrows rose like a cat stretching, which did little to banish the amusement written across her face.  “Apologies, my dear.  I’ve upset you.”  She unfolded herself from the window seat, a liquid motion without beginning or end, just a ineffable transition from seated to standing.  “I doubt you are obvious to the layperson.  I simply know what to look for.  At breakfast you were in breeches, now you’re in this beautiful frock; at Uskweirs that can only mean a handful of things.”

While she spoke, she had reached one langourous hand to brush up the line of Amelia’s wide collar.  Her fingertips gently compressed the curl of lace trim while also ghosting across bare skin.  The girl steeled herself not to stagger backwards as her whole body flushed, from forehead to collarbone and down her spine.  She desperately, desperately hoped her suddenly erect member was not poking out the drape of her dress.

Elizabeth sighed gustily.  “Cordy, you can stop playing with her any time, now.”

The woman’s eyes slid sideways to regard her hostess.  “But she’s so much fun to toy with,” she purred.

To that the girl could only nod begrudgingly.  “That she is.  But we’re hoping to ask you a favor.  Or rather, Father would like to ask you a favor on Amelia’s behalf.”

“I am of course at your father’s service,” Cordelia answered quickly, and at least half of her allure seemed to wash off of her, like a torrent of water rinsing away dye.  There was still quite a lot left when she turned her attention back to the new girl.  “What can I do for you, Miss Amelia?”

“Well I’ve just… started,” she answered hesitantly.  “Today, in fact.  Or possibly last night?  But.  I don’t sound the part.”

One eyebrow on the beautiful woman’s face tipped upwards.  “And his grace the Viscount Ashbourne would like me to help you… act the part.”  She ladled extra significance on the last few words while spearing Elizabeth with an aggrieved look.

“Just sound the part,” Elizabeth corrected lightly, and helped herself to the window seat that Cordelia had vacated.  “I can’t help her with voice, obviously.  I don’t know the trick to it.”

Cordelia slitted her eyes at the girl.  “Centuries of tradition, artistry, and discipline, passed down through generations of the maligned and marginalized by the so-called great and good of the land,” she groused, freezing Amelia in place with an icy look and stepping past her to cross the room, still talking, “a delicate art which has sheltered civilization through its worst ages, an endeavor met not just with thanklessness but with sneers, derision, suspicion, and prosecution… and you call it a trick.”  The library door clicked shut.  “We shall require some privacy to share ‘the trick.’”

Amelia dared not move, not even turn to see where Cordelia had gone, completely at a loss as to what she should be doing.  “I’m sure it’s not a trick,” she offered hesitantly, “But if it can help me, I should like to know what it is, when… properly considered?”

A deep, sonorous baritone intoned, “Properly considered, it is the sacred dance of Melpomene and Thalia.”

Amelia turned at the sound of the man’s voice, surprised that someone had stepped silently into the library before the door had closed.  The next moment, she leapt back, surprised at the broad-shouldered man standing there, facing the door, draped in a white sheet.

“It is the golden thread woven from ancient Greece through noble Rome to the present day,” the man continued, turning to face her.  Amelia blinked.  He wasn’t draped in a sheet; he was wearing a toga.

A toga… edged with purple thread.

“It is nothing less than the thing that makes us human, makes us civilized, makes us more than the brute beasts of the field,” said the man in the toga.  No—it was Cordelia’s dress.  But how had he got it off her so quickly?

“It is no trick.  It is…” With no small measure of relish, the man lifted one open hand before his face, fingers splayed, and concluded: “Theatre.”

From her perch in the window, Elizabeth groaned.  “You bring new depth of meaning to the word ‘histrionic,’ Cordy.”

“Cordy?!” Amelia gasped, staring at the man before her.  Cordelia’s dress.  And, now that she focused on it, he wore his hair in tight brown curls; she never would have called it a feminine style, except that it was.  And was that the faint touch of powder across his strong, sharp features?  Like an actor descended from the stage.

“When in a masculine role, I am Ned,” he corrected lightly.  Then his shoulders dropped, his eyes widened, his hips rolled forward, and his fingers splayed out.  Cordelia stood before them again.  “And Cordelia when en femme,” she concluded in the breathy contralto she’d used before.

“How can you possibly do that?” Amelia sputtered.

“Decades of honing my craft,” she answered, and as she continued speaking her voice swung from feminine to masculine to old to young to feeble to hale: “…performing thrice nightly more often than not, studying at the feet of masters and mistresses who have studied at the feet of their elders, who studied their elders, and onwards and back to the dawn of civilization.  That’s where I learned… the trick.”

“Dear Lord, Cordy,” Elizabeth sighed, pulling a book off of a shelf and opening it in the afternoon light, just so she could pointedly ignore the show.  “She just wants to sound like a girl.  She doesn’t have to channel Lysistrata.”

“Even a single corner of my profession is an ocean of technique and training,” Cordelia intoned regally.  “I can do it, but it will take… weeks.”  A beat later, she added, “And that only to impart the fundamentals.  Months of practice after, ideally with my checking her progress regularly.”

The girl in the window rolled her eyes, bit back a reply that looked like acid on her tongue, and forced herself to smile sweetly.  “If that means you would grace our home for those weeks, my Father and I would be glad for your company.”

Cordelia favored Elizabeth with a smile of no little satisfaction, and then rounded on Amelia.  “From you, Miss Amelia, I shall require discipline, dedication, and a great deal of your time and patience.  Or to be more accurate, I shall require your time, and you shall require your patience.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the new girl stammered.

“We shall meet here twice daily.  An hour before luncheon, and then again an hour before supper.”  She nodded, evidently considering the matter settled without any input on Amelia’s part.  “Read Lear before tomorrow morning.  You may go.”

Next Chapter: Strangers on a Hill

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