Girl Talk [Uskweirs #3]

This one’s kind of taking off and taking over my brain, so if you’re disinterested in Regency romance trans fiction, uh… sorry?

Catch this from the start at: A Fateful House Party [Uskweirs #1].

Introducing Elizabeth Randall, the Regency mascot for ‘go fast and break things’…

Girl Talk

Ashbourne rapped on the bedroom door and gave Amelia the ghost of a smile. “It is the ungodly hour of… well, nearly noon, so there is a slight question as to whether my daughter is even out of bed.”

But the door was swept open by a young woman in a pale blue day dress, all her long, dark hair wound up atop her head except for one rogue lock that she held in her other hand.  She looked a few years away from twenty.  Her delicate, sharp features blossomed into a surprised smile.  “Good morning, father,” she greeted him merrily.  She then directed her smile to Amelia and back to him, her eyebrows lifting minutely.

Sudden recognition struck Amelia: this was the girl stretched out across four laps from the night before, the girl conducting a casual conversation without any regard for her outrageous posture.  The girl whose ease had ignited a smouldering envy in Amelia.  The girl whose father would surely be scandalized by what she had been doing the night before, even if he was the host of the entire wicked party, himself.

But before Amelia could ascertain what Ashbourne might know and what he might think about it, the man himself wished his daughter a good morning.  “Elizabeth, I’d like you to meet Miss Amelia Wright.  Amelia, my dear: my daughter, Miss Elizabeth Randall.”

Amelia cringed at the introduction, abruptly aware that her name contrasted sharply with her waistcoat and breeches.

But Elizabeth evinced no trace of disquiet, and instead beamed at her.  “Father, have you brought me a new toy?”

“As you are fond of reminding me, my dear,” he replied with the barest touch of reproach, “I have no idea how lady’s fashion and comportment work and I had hoped that you might assist Miss Amelia in—”

“Yes yes,” the girl cut off her father, seized Amelia’s forearm, and dragged her through the door.  “Thank you for the new dolly, Father.  You may go, now.”  She then swung the door shut with a measure of force just beneath a slam.

Amelia struggled to find words as the girl pulled her over by her bedside.  She was in a young lady’s bedroom.  The door was shut.  Her father was just outside.  Surely it was moments before he would start roaring with anger.  A desperate impulse to flail her way out of the girl’s grip and scramble back to the door welled up inside Amelia.

Any thought of flight was banished as the girl laid hands on the lapels of Amelia’s waistcoat.  “Let’s get you out of these beastly clothes, hm?  First things first, after all.”

Amelia finally found her words, at least for a moment.  “Please, miss, I can’t—” 

“Why can’t you, Amelia?” the girl retorted, locking eyes with her even as she started tugging at her cravat.

Amelia found, grabbed, and stayed the other girls’ fingers.  “It’s not… proper.”

Elizabeth’s eyebrow peaked as if she were accepting a challenge.  “How so?”

Amelia glanced back at the door, through which Lord Ashbourne was neither bursting nor shouting.  Did he not care about his daughter, alone in her bedroom with— But there her thoughts tumbled, and she desperately grasped for some other handhold in her mind.  Perhaps the viscount was as wicked as they said, perhaps so wicked that he had raised his daughter without any sense of propriety.  The worst rumors called Uskweirs a brothel.

The girl tugged on Amelia’s hands to bring her back to reality.  “The words need to come out of your mouth instead of just tumbling around inside your head,” she said archly.  “Otherwise this is a staring contest, not a conversation.”  She waited a beat, and then asked, “What makes this improper, Amelia?”

She released the other girl’s hands.  “A lady can’t have… guests… in her bedroom, not with a closed door.  Certainly not… undressed guests.”

The corner of Elizabeth’s mouth twitched.  “Ladies often invite other ladies into their bedrooms and close the door,” she said as if explaining to a small child.  “Especially when they’re changing clothes.  Or do you expect a lady to change her clothes with the door open?”

“Yes, I mean no, but I’m not—” she started, and her thoughts stumbled again.  Suddenly the image of Theresa Chesterley sprung into her mind’s eye, the woman who had brought Amelia before Lord Ashbourne the night before—she had dressed in a man’s clothes.  How common was that sight at Uskweirs?  “Oh.  You think I’m a woman dressed in men’s clothes.”

Elizabeth took a moment to compose her features, as if forcing herself not to laugh.  “Amelia. You are a woman dressed in men’s clothes.”

The parade of Amelia’s thoughts broke formation: the show horses reared up, the carriages lost all their wheels at once, and the marching band members tumbled head over heels on top of each other.  She stared at Elizabeth, blinking, for some time.

The girl, maddeningly, just smiled up at her patiently.

“Perhaps— perhaps you don’t understand…” Amelia struggled.  “I’m not— that is, it’s just that—”

Now it was Elizabeth’s turn to find and clasp Amelia’s hands.  “I do understand, Amelia.”  And when that wasn’t enough to stem the tide of Amelia’s sputtering, the impish smile crept back onto Elizabeth’s face.  “Let’s be perfectly crass, shall we?  I know there’s a cock between your legs.”

Amelia flushed so hard she feared she might fall over.  It was only Elizabeth’s grip on her hands that prevented her from tumbling backwards onto the girl’s bed.

The girl watched her and when Amelia had collected her wits enough to listen, she spoke simply and directly.  “None of that is any reason that I can’t entertain you in my bedroom, or help you change clothes, or close the door while we do.  That’s what ladies do.”

Desperate, Amelia spat, “You’re being deliberately obtuse.”

This time Elizabeth didn’t even try to stop up her laughter.  “I’m not the only one!”

“I am not being obtuse!” Amelia cried, but when she tried to articulate why, exactly, everything became a jumble again.  

Elizabeth kept laughing.  

The laughter infected the jumble in Amelia’s mind, transmuting frustration into farce.  All at once, the magnitude of Amelia’s distress turned ridiculous; before she knew what was happening she snorted, guffawed, and then collapsed into laughter alongside Elizabeth.

At some point, the giggling subsided enough for Amelia to loosen and unwind her cravat.  As she tossed it aside, she remembered how much she hated it, and all the rest of her clothes.  The absurdity of clinging to them so desperately sent her in spirals of laughter again.  She could hardly find the air to explain to Elizabeth what had set her off again.

Elizabeth undressed her with the efficiency of a tailor, chattering happily about nothing whatsoever.  After a discreet knock, a maid entered with a short stack of fabric: the dress and shift that had taunted Amelia in her own room.  But Elizabeth was of course insensate to such taunts.  She draped each over Amelia in turn, along with the bundled corset that had been hidden between them.

The full-length mirror standing in the corner of the room took up the task of taunting Amelia, but Elizabeth insisted that she ignore it.  They were hardly done dressing her, after all; she and the maid busied themselves seeing to Amelia’s fit.  The dress needed to be let out in some places, taken in elsewhere, and entirely re-hemmed.

While the dress was removed and reshaped, Elizabeth relaced and adjusted the soft, quilted corset around Amelia’s middle.  The girl’s fussing seemed more than a little absurd.  “Surely that’s unnecessary.  I don’t have anything for the garment to, erm, manage.”

 “I think you’ll be surprised,” Elizabeth said, smirking up at Amelia.  “And this one doesn’t even have stays.  Just wait till we get you in evening wear.”

Then the dress was ready for fitting and was pulled back over Amelia’s head, then pulled off again for another round of refinement.  “I’m sorry I’m such a nuisance,” she told both Elizabeth and the maid, blushing.  “It must take so much effort to fit such a dress onto such a body.”

But both women only laughed.  Elizabeth explained with casual confidence, “Everybody needs their dresses fitted and refitted.  Your body is no more unruly than any other.”

The maid favored Amelia with a soft smile and confided, “My last mistress had need of refittings week to week, miss.  Don’t worry your head none.”

When the dress was pronounced acceptable, Elizabeth confiscated both it and the corset.  Amelia was sat down in a chair placed in the center of a sheet and the girl dug her fingers into Amelia’s hair.  “Well, at least you’ve worn this long, as far as men’s cuts go.  I’m sure we can do something with this.  Tonight we’ll roll you up in papers, but in the mean time…”

The maid advanced with a comb, scissors, and a determined look.

Amelia took a deep breath to try and still her head and heart.

But while the comb tugged and the scissors snipped, Elizabeth cupped Amelia’s chin in her hand.  Bright blue eyes roved across her face, evaluating.  “Your skin tone’s a little ruddier than mine,” she muttered, “so we’ll need to mix you your own powders.”  She disappeared while the maid continued her work, slowly circling around Amelia.

When the girl returned, she bore an armful of crockery.  “I couldn’t find a tray,” she muttered as she staggered over to her vanity.  “The kitchens are still recovering from last night, bless them.”

She set to pouring and stirring across the room, then bringing a small crock to where Amelia sat, applying a smudge of powder across her cheek, scowling at it, and then wiping it off with a damp cloth.  Then she returned to mixing and stirring on the vanity.  This was repeated ten or twenty times before she smiled instead of scowled.

“I’ve taken note of the proportions for you,” she said as she dusted the first powder across Amelia’s face.  “Corn starch, turmeric, pimentón, safflower.  I went easy on carmine because it’s so dear.  You will no doubt adjust things to suit your taste in cosmetics, just as soon as you develop a taste in cosmetics.”  She applied three different powders in succession, promising to show Amelia where to put how much of each the next morning.

Two short curls bobbed down on either side of Amelia’s field of vision and the maid declared her work done.  The corset was wrapped around her middle and the dress draped over top.  Elizabeth finally allowed her to stand and look in the mirror.

“I don’t think I can,” Amelia admitted ruefully, pressing herself back into her chair.

“I can bring the mirror to you, but that’s just silly,” the viscount’s daughter said, setting her fists on her hips.  “Also, it’s heavy.”

It took her five full minutes to steel herself, to get her breathing under control, to actually heave herself up onto her feet, and force those feet to start walking across the room.  At Elizabeth’s teasing suggestion, she accepted the girls’ hands over her eyes.

She wasn’t sure she even wanted to see.  Maybe this was enough of the fantasy already.  Getting dressed, primped, and most of all treated like just another girl.  It had been a barrage of discomforts and surprises, but throughout that strange process her shoulders had slowly unwound and unclenched.  It occured to her that she had never felt so relaxed in her life.

In a moment she would see what that process had turned her into, and she knew, down to the pit of her stomach, that every scrap of ease that had collected in her would be annihilated the moment she saw the results.  The depths of her delusion would be exposed.  The impossibility of her dreams would be revealed.  She would look ridiculous.  Miserable.  Grotesque.

And then the hands darted away from her eyes and there in front of her was the mirror, and there in the mirror was… a girl.

For the flash of a moment, she thought it might be somebody else.  But no, it was her.  The girl moved when she moved.  The girl’s image shared features with the image that Amelia had seen in the mirror for years.  But this was the image of a girl.

The more she looked into the mirror, the more she saw herself,  in more than one way.  She saw the same eyes, the same tawny-colored hair, the same lanky limbs.  But the way those eyes were set in that delicate face, the way the hair was curled and piled atop her head, the way her arms and shoulders rose up to that graceful neck.  These were new… but also uncannily familiar.

Suddenly, she realized that for years she had looked into the mirror and, in that brief half-heartbeat before the eyes can see, she had expected these features.  She cringed, knowing that her expectations were about to be crushed by reality, but then… reality cringed back in the mirror’s reflection.  She cleared her throat, smoothed out her expression, watched as her reflection did the same, and then she hazarded a smile.

The girl in the mirror smiled back, or started to.  Amelia’s hands flew up to cover her mouth.  With difficulty, she forced them back down, breathed another smile, and marveled as the girl smiled back.  “This is sorcery.”

“Of course it is,” Elizabeth laughed.  “If support garments and cosmetics aren’t sorcery, I don’t know what is.”

Amelia’s hands fell to her sides, where the soft corset hugged her body.  She didn’t have a bust, exactly, but something about her shape seemed to imply that she did, anyway.  The same for her waist and hips: neither resembled wasp or bell, but her silhouette still bore the suggestion that they were there.  The resulting effect was entirely feminine.

Amelia felt something hot hit her cheek.  “No, I can’t cry, tears will ruin everything!”

Behind her, Elizabeth snickered, but not unkindly.  “Tears won’t ruin much, that’s why I didn’t kohl your eyes.”

But when Amelia’s tears had subsided, the viscount’s daughter wiped them away and re-applied the cosmetics with a deft hand.  “And now, I imagine I am rushing things, but what would you think of going downstairs?  It’s luncheon, I skipped breakfast, and I am famished.”

Amelia looked to the door fearfully.  “Oh, I don’t… I don’t think I’m ready to go outside.”

“Well then I guess we’ll just take all this off and put you back in breeches, hm?”  Elizabeth watched her from where she leaned against her bedstand.  “Wrap that cravat nice and tight around your neck?”

Amelia looked back in the mirror.  The girl was still there.  Or was she?

The more Amelia looked, the more she saw.  There were… gaps and inconsistencies.  She didn’t stand right.  If she turned her head just so, her jawline was all wrong.  She stared at her reflection, picking apart the image, peeling off layers of artifice and deception.  She knew what she’d find underneath: the ridiculous, miserable truth.

And who could really be fooled by a little muslin and corn starch?  If she went outside, people would look at her, and then… “This can’t possibly actually work,” Amelia declared.  “People will… they’ll see through this.  They’ll know.”

But Elizabeth only airily declared, “You vastly overestimate the discernment of our species.”

“People aren’t that stupid, Miss Elizabeth.”

“People are exactly that stupid,” Elizabeth insisted.  “People see a dress, they expect to see a woman in the dress.  If the person in the dress is not their vision of femininity, they don’t conclude that she’s not a woman.  They conclude she has some… unique and curious features.”

“I know a euphemism when I hear it,” Amelia snorted.  “I have no wish to be accounted as ugly, either!”

“Well there’s little chance of that,” she said, and nodded to the Amelia in the mirror.  When she looked back to Amelia outside the mirror, her eyes narrowed in consideration.

For a terrible moment, Amelia wondered if she, too, were peeling away the layers of artifice, if even her new friend was digging for that terrible truth underneath the facade that she herself had just built.

But instead, the girl asked, “Let me ask you this, then.  If it came down to it, would you rather be accounted a handsome man or a homely woman?”

Amelia didn’t answer immediately, because her impulse was surprisingly clear.  “A homely woman,” she answered eventually.  A beat later, she admitted aloud,“Perhaps I have conflated femininity with beauty.”

“You wouldn’t be the first,” Elizabeth said with a shrug.  “But if—”  The girl was cut off by a knock at the door.  Immediately her features turned mischevious.  “One moment,” she called, and started walking backwards towards the door.  To Amelia she whispered, “Providence has delivered us a prime opportunity to test if ‘people will just know.’”

“You wouldn’t,” Amelia hissed.

But Elizabeth laughed.  “My dear, you haven’t known me long enough to understand, this is exactly the sort of thing I’d do.”  And then she spun on a heel and threw open the door.  “Ah, Theresa, good morning.  Do come in.”

“I think you mean good afternoon, Lizzie,” corrected Theresa Chesterley as she stepped into the room.  A beat later, she noted Amelia’s presence.

The woman looked Amelia up and down.  Her regard seemed to last forever, but Amelia, quailing under that scrutiny, could hardly tell if the elongation of time was real or imagined.  The woman’s eyes followed the line of her dress, rested for a moment on where her hips ought to be if she had any, and flittered across her face.  Finally she took in Amelia’s curled hair before returning to her face to make eye contact.  “And a good afternoon to you as well, Miss…?”

Elizabeth stepped in.  “This is Miss Amelia Wright.  Amelia, meet Theresa Chesterley.”  The girl then gestured to the chair on the sheet still littered with snippets of hair.  “Amelia needed a trim, and my maid is a magician with scissors.”

The new woman looked to Amelia with renewed interest, scrutinizing her hair again.  “You look marvelous, Miss Wright.  Short hair is a rare sight, but you are doing it credit.”

“Poor thing had to have it all shaved off due to illness a few months back,” Elizabeth declared.  To underscore her patent fabrication, she made an impish face at Amelia behind Chesterley’s shoulder.  “It takes so long to grow back out.  I keep telling her that we should find some clever curls she can pin in.”

“Hard to match that exact color, I’d wager,” the woman replied.  “The cost of having such a exquisite shade.”  She smiled.  “I don’t think you need extensions, for howevermuch my opinion matters.”

“I think it’s always nice to have options,” Elizabeth put in, and then shifted the conversation.  “What brings you to my boudoir, Miss Chesty?”

Finally the woman turned her gaze away from Amelia, who struggled not to collapse into a chair or across the bed.  The other two talked about Amelia knew not what while she marveled at the reception that she had received.

Theresa Chesterley had not batted an eye when confronted with Amelia’s appearance.  Hadn’t been brought up short when given her feminine name.  Had complimented her appearance.  Had chatted about hair, like the women whose conversations on which Amelia had spent a lifetime eavesdropping.

She also hadn’t recognized Amelia from the night before.

“And a good afternoon to you as well, Miss Amelia,” the woman in question was saying.  Apparently their conversation had run its course while she had followed her dizzying thoughts.  “I’m afraid I’m taking my leave and heading back into the city.  I would have liked to better make your acquaintance.  Perhaps we’ll cross paths again, here or elsewhere.”

Amelia opened her mouth to answer but her stomach dropped through the floor.  Her voice.  Her voice would certainly give her away.  Instead she smiled a brightly as she could.

The woman met her eyes once more, smiled shortly, and left.

“What just happened?” Amelia exhaled, inviting herself to collapse onto Elizabeth’s bed.  Her knees certainly couldn’t keep her standing up.

“Theresa stopped by to say goodbye, got introduced to you, said you had lovely hair, and left,” the girl summarized as she sat down next to her.  “Oh, and she didn’t find anything amiss, did she?”

Amelia bit back a correction—she hadn’t said her hair was lovely, but that she looked marvelous—and pressed herself into the mattress.  “How is this possible?”

“I told you: people see what they expect to see.”  She bounced off the bed and crossed the room to her vanity.  “Just like you didn’t find anything amiss when you met me.”  She picked a book off the desktop, carefully removed the bookmark, and stowed the latter in a small drawer.

It took Amelia a moment to register what the other girl had said.  She pushed herself up onto her elbows.  “I’m sorry, what?”

Elizabeth’s impish smile was back.  “Amelia Wright, you are not the only one who had to convince the world that you were a girl.  I’ve just a little more practice than you.” She allowed Amelia to gape at her, smirking down and resting the little book against her cocked hip.  “But more importantly, lunch is waiting downstairs, and I am famished.”

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