Gŵil Awst [Uskweirs #8]

You ever notice how most teevee and movies present The Lonely Queer who’s all alone in their queerness and nobody understands them? One of the big motivations behind writing Uskweirs is to raise a giant middle finger to all that. Queer community is an essential cornerstone of queer existence and the vast majority of queer rep portraying it other wise is disingenuous at best and underhanded fascist propaganda at worst.

So here’s some queer community for Amelia: let’s meet some other trans girls from Regency England. It’s a party! It’s Gŵil Awst!

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

August 1, 1812

Uskweirs never needed a reason for a party, but neither did it turn down any reason presented.  Small parties seemed to manifest spontaneously at the manor house.  Guests came and went constantly, so at chaotic intervals, enough bodies would collect that a casual game of lawn croquet and dinner apotheosized into festivities.  These were easy enough for Amelia to avoid if she cared to.  She could read in her room, go for a ride or walk through the grounds, or play on the piano that she’d found stashed away in an apparently forgotten room on the third floor.  Gŵil Awst promised to be another beast entirely.

As Elizabeth described it, Gŵil Awst was a Welsh holiday practiced by the locals and gleefully appropriated by the Uskweirs crowd.  While the Welsh villagers were enjoying traditional feasts that they had hiked up onto nearby hilltops, the festivities at Uskweirs promised the manor house’s usual fare: dining, dancing, drinking, and sex in the gardens.

Amelia had thus far weathered a small dinner party, a parish church worth of villagers, and a few spontaneous Uskweirs parties.  She was more than a little apprehensive at the thought of attending a party that Elizabeth promised her would be even larger than the one she had found on her first day here.  She wondered if the Randalls would think any less of her if she locked herself in her room.

She was about to share her locked-room plan with Elizabeth when the other girl asked, “At Gŵil Awst, would you like me to introduce you to some other women like us?  And introduce you to them.”

“There are more of us?” Amelia asked in surprise, sitting down next to her friend on the settee.  “I thought we were… rare.”

Elizabeth shrugged.  “There’s rare and then there’s rare.  Cordelia’s rare to the point of unique, I think.  The likes of you and me?  There are always a handful of us at the bigger Uskweirs events.”

Amelia folded her hands into her lap.  “I think I should like that a great deal,” she confessed.  “They won’t think little of me since I am so… new?”

Elizabeth laughed outright.  “They’re more likely to adopt you.  So it’s settled.  I’ll sequester us away so we can gossip in peace.”

It took some time for Amelia to navigate through the Gŵil Awst throng once it had assembled a few weeks later.  There were a few familiar faces she’d met in the past months who she had to exchange pleasantries with.  Nor could she pass up the sumptuous spread laid out for the guests, since it was sure to be picked over by the time she returned later in the evening.   She also got asked to dance a bewildering three times and had to lie that her card was filled.  As she ascended the east stairs, she reflected with some surprise that, while she had never been one for parties, she might actually enjoy herself here… if she didn’t have other priorities.

Eventually she made it to an upstairs parlour overlooking the east lawn, usually disregarded by party-goers.  By the time she arrived, six women had already gathered there.  As Amelia came inside, all eyes turned to her.

They were… stunning.  It didn’t hurt that they were all decked out in party dresses, of course, but Amelia still boggled as their collective attention settled on her.  They were tall, they were short, they were young and old, dark and fair.  Some were definitely prettier than others, but even the plainest woman possessed a beauty that all but staggered Amelia.  And they were all like her?

She realized that she was standing in front of the open door, lips parted as if about to speak, but absolutely nothing came to mind.

Thankfully, Elizabeth was among the gathering.  She skipped across the room, hands out in welcome.  “Amelia, come in and meet the girls.”  This, at least, triggered a sequence of names and “a pleasure to meet you”s that put Amelia on familiar ground.  As more women slipped into the room, each was introduced to Amelia and anyone else they hadn’t met, and soon the room had more than a dozen women in it, chatting, drinking, and eating hors d’oevres.

Not long after, a liveried servant entered bearing a tray of familiar tall amber glasses.  The room was immediately filled with a chorus of responses ranging from surprised delight to exaggerrated groans.  “I thought it might be convenient,” Elizabeth explained as she passed them out, “since we were all gathered in one place.”

All but one of the women took a glass, often clinking it against a neighbour’s, and then downing it as quickly as possible.  The sole woman who refrained—short, robust, and introduced as Mrs Grace Curtis—demurred quietly, which did nothing to stop someone else teasing, “Oh, is it time for another one already?  You two are like rabbits.”

Grace blushed to the general amusement of the room, outside of Amelia.  Seeing that the new girl was left out of the joke, Grace ignored the rest to explain: “My husband is like us, but the other way round.  He was thought a girl when he was young, and has since corrected things.”  She paused and sighed happily.  “But we both still wanted children.  And Henry hates it, but he grits his teeth and makes it happen.”

It took Amelia a moment.  “Oh.  So… he… bears the child.”

The other woman nodded.  “Once he’s showing, he has to go hide on our farm for months on end.  A few neighbours know, but mostly he pretends to be his own sister, visiting during the pregnancy.  It’s… very difficult for him, but he says it’s worth it.  We have three children so far.”

“And?”  Amelia raised her empty glass as the larger part of her unasked question.

Grace smiled.  “Among its many other effects, the potion makes us infertile.  But only as long as you take it regularly.”

Now it was Amelia’s turn to blush.  “Ah.  So your husband is… not yet pregnant with your fourth.”

Nearby women chimed in with laughing “Not yet!” and “Give her time!”

But Grace only rolled her eyes.  “Not that we know.  It’s a complicated business.  But until we do know, I’m off the potion and trying not to miss it too much.  Lord knows Henry sacrifices more than I do.”

“I do love how you call it a potion,” Elizabeth chimed in with an indulgent smile.

“Well I’m not all high-fallutin’ like you classy folk with your Latin,” Grace responded with a matching smile.  “I just raise horses… and provide half of you modish girls your vimus equay yammawhatever.”

“‘Potion’ is so much easier,” Elizabeth laughed, and then nodded to two other ladies, one tall and one short.  “Not to denigrate the value of a good education, of course.”

Everyone smiled knowingly, again except for Amelia.  It was only a heartbeat before the taller of the two indicated ladies, a Miss Marianne Woods, explained.  “We run a ladies’ seminary in Edinburgh,” she said, putting a hand on the shorter woman’s shoulder.

“Used to run,” the latter, Miss Jane Pirie, corrected with a sour smirk.

“…and will again,” her partner rejoined with a smile.  She plucked two wine glasses from a passing tray and passed one to Jane. “Elizabeth is one of our graduates, in fact.”

“I still find it difficult to not respond with ‘yes, Miss,’ whenever you speak,” the graduate giggled.  “And I’ll tell you up front that I am ashamed at the collapsed state of my French.  But it is lovely seeing you here, this far south.”

Amelia bit her lip.  She had no comprehension of ladies’ seminaries, beyond the fact that daughters of family friends would be sent off to one in their awkward early teens and return a few years later graceful, sophisticated, and ready to be married off.  All Amelia could think to say is: “Edinburgh?  I just met one of your countrymen down in Bath.”

“We don’t know him,” the shorter Jane put in with a smirk.  “Edinburgh’s not that small.”

“I wouldn’t imagine,” Amelia demurred, tamping down her hope that an unlikely connection might be worthy of conversation.  “He’s a doctor, and a new one.  He must have spent the last few years in his studies.”

Marianne tried to forestall a smirk of her own.  “Not Doctor James Barry?”  When Amelia answered in a surprised affirmative, she laughed.  “We do actually know him.  We just saw him as he was settling into his new digs in London.  Is he here?”

Elizabeth shook her head.  “He hasn’t forced himself onto Uskweirs society yet.  But I take it he’d fit in?”

Both ladies from Edinburgh bobbed their heads but did not speak further, so Amelia asked, “What took you to London?”

Marianne beamed while Jane scowled.  The first one answered: “We filed a libel suit against the lady who ruined our school’s reputation… and we won.”

“I heard some whispers,” Elizabeth admitted.  “But nothing solid.  All I know is you lost all your students in a single day.”

“Three days,” Jane grumbled.

Marianne rolled her eyes, and then leaned toward her old student.  “Would you like to know what the wicked libel was, Lizzie?”

“I admit to no small measure of desperation.”

The teacher smiled conspiratorially, but did not bother to lower her volume.  “Lady Cumming Gordon told all her friends that Jane and I were fucking each other in the girls’ beds.”

Amelia had no response.  Elizabeth actually sniggered.  Finally Amelia stammered, “But you won the case, so it was… proven untrue.  In a court of law.”

Jane scoffed.  “As if we’d fuck in the girls’ beds.  They’re far too narrow.”

“And hard,” Marianne agreed with a giggle.  “But our lawyers made an excellent case and the judges concluded that women fucking other women is as fanciful as witchcraft.”

“‘Equally imaginary,’” Jane quoted, “‘with witchcraft, sorcery, or carnal copulation with the devil.’  I’m so happy,” she went on dourly, “to be compared to Satan.”

“Oh hush, we won,” her partner replied, and clinked their glasses together.

“At what cost,” came the sour reply, shortly doused in drink.

Before Amelia could puzzle out if she could politely inquire what Jane had meant, Elizabeth turned toward the door and squealed, “Oh, CeeCee!”

Amelia turned, eyes wide.  There in the doorway was a striking figure, a tall and regal woman bedecked in an elaborate party dress made out of silk so white it glowed, trimmed in ripples of scarlet red.  Her lips were stained the same color.  Her raven hair was streaked through with streamers of grey which seemed more like ribbons and pennants than indicators of age.  Atop it all she wore a wide-brimmed hat, clearly crafted to match her white and red dress exactly, festooned with roses.

“Miss Amelia Wright,” Elizabeth introduced giddily.  “May I introduce you to the Countess Charlotte Catherwood.”

The lady leveled her gaze at Amelia, the corner of her lip twitching upwards.  “You’re supposed to be in Iceland, dear.”

“We’ve met,” was all Amelia could manage, barely a whisper.  She tried to swallow, but every inch of her throat was a desert.“She’s… she’s my mother’s best friend.”

The countess advanced, looking her up and down appraisingly.  “My my, you’ve been busy.  Amelia, is it?”  She smiled, the same fierce, feral smile that had always scared Amelia as a child.  “You must call me CeeCee.”

Amelia stammered for what felt like a full minute.  “You can’t possibly,” she said finally, which was at least words even if it wasn’t a sentence.

“I can possibly, and I do certainly,” her mother’s best friend responded regardless, pulling out her hat pins and handing off her exuberantly rosey headpiece to a servant.  “Have you been holed up here for the past three months?”

“Since May, milady,” Amelia answered automatically.

The countess raised a single finger.  “CeeCee.”

“Since May, CeeCee,” she corrected.  “That’s… going to be strange and awkward.”

“Well, I have to learn to call you ‘Amelia,’ now,” came the reply, with a glass raised in toast.  “So here’s to mutual difficulties.”

Amelia looked sidelong to Elizabeth for help, which was clearly futile, as the girl’s eyes were wide and smile even giddier at this unexpected development.

“Is she your protégé, Lizzie?” CeeCee asked the other girl, and at her excited confirmation, nodded decisively. “Well done.  Both of you.”

Elizabeth patted Amelia’s shoulders proprietarily.  “Cordelia helped, too.”

“Well I’m glad she’s earning her keep here,” CeeCee remarked with a droll smirk.  “It means she won’t try to come earn her keep at my house.”  She lifted an eyebrow at Amelia.  “Are you quite well, dear?  I won’t bite.”

“Yes you will,” came the quick reply from Elizabeth and at least two others in the room.

CeeCee nodded ruefully.  “Yes I will,” she allowed, to much amusement.  Amelia realized with sudden dread that they had become the center of attention.  The countess cast her eyes left and right, as if she herself was also realizing the same, or more accurately that it was a problem for the new girl.  “Amelia, dear, would you perhaps like to sit?”

She did; most of the others took the hint and drifted to different corners of the room.  In a moment just three of them were sitting on a long couch: Amelia, CeeCee, and Elizabeth.  The last diplomatically changed the subject.  “CeeCee, was your husband well enough to travel?”

“He was,” the countess answered, somewhere between polite and pleased.  She then waved a hand in the general direction of the south lawn.  “I’m sure he’s already somewhere in the gardens by now, getting the daylights buggered out of him.”

Jonathan Catherwood.  Earl, politician, family man, frequent guest at her father’s table.  And apparently, Amelia learned tonight, a sodomite.  A widower remarried to a foreign lady of little name but reportedly good breeding and excellent hospitality, who became the Countess Charlotte, who became, tonight, CeeCee.  Who was, and had always been… like Amelia.

“You don’t mind?” someone said, and Amelia realized with horror that it was she who had asked.

CeeCee raised her eyebrows.  “Mind what, the buggery in the gardens?”  She settled back onto the couch cushions.  “Honestly, I’m just glad to get the night off.  And it’s nice for him to get a little variety.  It’s the spice of life, after all.”

Amelia frowned, having received more information than she had actually wanted out of a question she hadn’t really intended to ask.  “My apologies, mil— CeeCee.  That was rude of me to ask.”

“Exceedingly, but I got to turn it around and make you regret asking it, so I’m quite pleased with myself.”  She gave Amelia a short little smile.  “Are you ready to ask the question you actually want the answer to, or haven’t you found it yet?”

Amelia frowned.  What question?  But the countess had always been like this: fierce, presumptive, and self-satisfied, a combination that had terrified a much younger Amelia.  That impression had continued long after she’d attained adulthood.  She framed questions that could only be answered one way, the way she wanted you to, and watched you wriggle like a worm on a hook while you tried to figure out how to respond.  Whenever the countess had visited, Amelia had dreaded stepping into her mother’s sitting room—

Her mother.

She could feel all the color drain out of her face as she whispered, “Does my mother know?  About you?  About… all of this?”

CeeCee leaned forward to pat the back of Amelia’s hand.  “Your mother knows very little about anything outside the bonds of her own expectation, and therefore absolutely nothing about any of this.  I have never seen any of your family here at Uskweirs.  You are safe, my dear.”

And suddenly Amelia could breathe again, blinking against the lamplight in the library as if she had been buried underground and just pulled up out of the loamy earth.  The countess was intimidating, to be sure, but it hadn’t been her presence that had upset Amelia; it was what her presence implied might also be true.  If the Countess Catherwood could be of Uskweirs, there was no telling who else might be.

But not Amelia’s family.  She took the countess—CeeCee—at her word.  Her acumen had always been razor-sharp.  And to Amelia’s surprise, as she sat on the couch watching CeeCee banter with Elizabeth, the woman who had terrified her as a girl transformed into a familiar figure, someone who Amelia might even take comfort in.  Someone she could trust.

Hesitantly at first, Amelia joined the conversation of the other two ladies.  The talk was not light, not with CeeCee’s proclivity for suddenly speaking of the terribly serious or the terribly scandalous as if it were nothing.  The habit had always thrilled Amelia’s mother.  No one gossiped quite like the Countess Catherwood.

When she was younger, Amelia had quailed before the onslaught of surprise and scandal.  But tonight it was pleasant, exciting even, and she realized: now she was on the inside of it, just another woman indulging in a little gossip.  Slowly a few others joined them on the couch or the nearby chairs, and Amelia sank gratefully into the feeling of sisterly camaraderie.

Other ladies left the parlour for the larger party, being sure to say their goodbyes as they went.  Amelia tried to tamp down the thrill of each one using her name as they did so, then realized she could just sit there beaming.  Soon there were only a handful of people left, lounging and chatting.

She had thought that CeeCee had been the draw for others to join them, but as talk kept returning to her life, Amelia realized that she was the main attraction.  The new girl.  But now it didn’t feel like she was on display; instead, she was surrounded by new friends eager to get to know her.  Unsurprisingly, most of the talk centered around her recent history, what steps she’d taken, and things she’d learned.

She’d grown so comfortable, in fact, that she found herself leaning forward off the couch, saying: “What about—” But her newfound confidence immediately failed her and she fell back into the couch blushing furiously.

CeeCee’s grey eyes roved over her for only a moment before she finished Amelia’s question for her.  “What about the Snip?”

Amelia covered her face with a hand.  “Yes.  Although that’s a nicer way of putting it than what I was about to say.”

“Castration,” Jane offered brusquely.  Amelia couldn’t tell through her fingers if the teacher was trying to be helpful or gamefully goading her.

She lowered her hand resolutely and forced herself to speak.  “Yes.  Lord Ashbourne mentioned it was… an available option.  And suggested I would probably need to think about it before making a decision, and it’s been months, and I’m… nowhere near a decision.”

Elizabeth placed her cool hand on top of Amelia’s.  “First of all, there is no rush to make that decision.”

“But he suggested it might… hasten the process?” the new girl asked uncertainly.  “And that seems like something better done sooner rather than later.”

CeeCee shrugged.  “I defy you, my dear, to guess which of our present number has been snipped and who hasn’t.”  She gestured grandly around their little circle.  “At the end of the day, it makes no difference.”

Marianne spoke up with a slight frown on her face.  Amelia suspected she was not accustomed to gainsaying nobility.  “I’m not sure I’d go that far, milady.  Virus equae amantis affects every woman differently, so it’s impossible to say if, for instance, I might have had poorer results if I hadn’t, as you say, been snipped.”

“There are practical concerns, too,” Grace added.  “If you want children—and before Lizzie interrupts me, if you want children the easy way—the Snip is not for you.  Elizabeth will talk your ear off about clever plots and stratagems to acquire children, but they’re all complicated and expensive.  As much as Henry and I go through for our kids, it’s still simpler than the alternatives.”

“Speaking of practical concerns, it can change how the associated equipment operates, let’s say,” added someone else.

“Which is why I’ve refrained.  I think my husband would be quite upset if I couldn’t perform my wifely duties,” CeeCee opined with a laugh.

“Trust me,” Jane cut in, “it’s never stopped Marianne.”  The circle laughed and toasted Marianne, who pretended she wasn’t blushing fiercely.

Elizabeth bumped her shoulder against Amelia’s.  “Is any of this helping?  We seem to be as collectively confused as you were individually.”

Amelia gave a helpless shrug.  “It’s a personal decision made for personal reasons steeped in personal history.  I don’t know what else I was expecting.”

The conversation moved on, slowly losing steam and participants.  Finally Marianne rose from her seat, delicately stifling a yawn.  “I’m afraid my conversation is going to turn into snoring soon if I don’t absent myself.  It was such a pleasure making your acquaintance, Miss Wright.”

“Amelia, please,” she answered, holding out her hand to take and squeeze Marianne’s, and then Jane’s as she stood to go, too.  “I fear I put far more care into choosing a given name that few will speak than to the surname that most will use.”

Marianne smiled, turned to go, and then turned back.  “You mentioned, once you were done with your metamorphosis here at Uskweirs, you might become a governess.  Jane and I can help with that.  Provide you references as if you were one of our graduates.”

“We’d need to check that you’re competent first,” cautioned Jane, trying and failing to shoot her partner teacher an admonishing look.  “We have standards to uphold, even if we no longer have a reputation.”

The gathering did not last much longer after the two left.  Grace had to be delicately roused from the doze into which she’d fallen while the others pretended not to notice.  CeeCee made Amelia promise to write.  As they left the parlour, Elizabeth reminded Amelia that there would be dancing the next evening, too, since she had lied to so many gentlemen about her filled dance card.  Amelia had to admit that the prospect was not without its temptations, but her main concern was seeing what was left of the buffet downstairs.

She had just descended the east stairs in search of a well-past-midnight snack when a voice called her name.  She turned to find Theresa Chesterley, halfway into shrugging on her traveling coat.  The lady crossed the hall, still adjusting the fit.  “I had all but given up hope.  I’ve been looking for you all night.”

“Oh, I was… upstairs,” Amelia answered awkwardly, and folded her hands before herself, just to give them something to do.    Her empty stomach complained, but she ignored it and hoped it would refrain from complaining audibly.  “Did you need me for something?”

Miss Chesterley’s features rippled through a handful of expressions.  Finally she settled on a polite smile, although her eyes seemed disappointed.  “Nothing specific, just hoping to enjoy your company.”

“At a party like this, there had to be better company than mine,” Amelia laughed tiredly.  “Clever minds more to your liking.”

“I’ve never found your company or your mind wanting,” came her quick reply, but a trace of worry clouded the woman’s face.    “Did you not… that is to say.  I had hoped to talk with you about Sarah’s novel, if nothing else.”

“I haven’t quite finished it,” Amelia hedged, and then pointedly looked at the other woman’s coat.  “Are you leaving?”

“I’m afraid I am.  There’s a… meeting I need to attend in London.”  She patted her pockets.  “I thought I could celebrate Gŵil Awst here and make it there in time, too, and I will, but it means cutting short my Uskweirs visit and enduring a tiresomely long coach ride.  Perhaps the next occasion we meet we’ll have more time.”

“I’d like that,” Amelia said, more out of instinct than anything else.  She could smell chocolate wafting in from the other room.

“Would you?” Chesterley asked, smiling, and then laughed.  “My apologies, but I really must go.  It was a pleasure seeing you, if even for a moment.”  And then she bustled out the door and into a waiting carriage.

Amelia was halfway through filling her plate from the very depleted buffet before she realized that Theresa Chesterley’s smile had been brighter than she’d ever seen it… and it had lit up when Amelia had said she would like to spend time with her.  She put down the tongs and looked back to the long-closed door.  “Wait, what just happened?” she asked the empty air.

Next Chapter: to be released on June 10th!

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