The Impossible [Uskweirs #2]

You know how when you write something out to “get it out of your head” so you can “stop thinking about it” and instead your head just fills the now-emptied space with the next installment of that same thing? Yeah.

This is a continuation from the abysmally titled A Fateful House Party [Uskweirs #1].

Apparently my brain insists on writing this out. No guarantees that a third installment (I shudder to say “chapter”), but… no, strike that, my brain’s already writing it.

The Impossible

The dress was nothing special, but it was taunting her from across the room.

That is where the maid, presumably, had laid it out while Amelia slept.  The Uskweirs house staff had also fetched her luggage from the nearby inn and quietly unpacked it into her room.  She could see her trunk in the corner; her hair brush had been placed on the vanity.  But in addition to the breeches and waistcoats and cravats that she’d brought to Monmouthshire, someone had added a house dress, carefully spread over the back of the vanity chair.

And it really was nothing special: light cream falling in soft folds, the same short bodice and long skirt as almost everyone had been wearing last night. She could feel its silky texture from across the room.  Under that sheer colored fabric lay a white muslin shift, neatly folded in the seat of the chair.

The latter was presumably an identical garment to the one that Amelia was already wearing, that she wasn’t terribly sure the provenance of.  The details of the prior evening were all murky after accepting the Viscount’s invitation.  She had been shown to a room, the bed had been turned down, she didn’t have a nightshirt but the shift had been provided (had it been laid out on the bed?).  She had stripped off waistcoat and breeches, pulled on the sleepwear, and collapsed into bed.

This morning she’d spied the dress before rising, and like a terrified prey animal, she hadn’t moved since.  Now she and the dress were locked in a staring contest.

Her belly informed her that it expected breakfast soon.  Breakfast, which would be served downstairs among all the other houseguests, strangers all.  Did the Viscount expect her to come down dressed in that?  That was exactly what Amelia wanted to do—the impulse was thrumming under her skin, compelling her to snatch up the soft, silky garment and bury her face in its folds—but the prospect was nothing short of terrifying.

If she went down dressed in that, everyone would look at her.  They would know.  They would wonder what was wrong with her—or perhaps they wouldn’t wonder, because they were houseguests at Uskweirs, after all, but then that was worse because then they would know.

She briefly considered vomiting, which would preclude hunger and postpone dressing that much longer, but didn’t want to make a mess for the house staff to clean up.

She debated putting it on in the privacy of her room.  Trying it on, seeing what it looked like in the mirror: that didn’t necessarily mean that she had to wear it downstairs.  But would she be able to take it off again?  If wearing the dress felt like she hoped it would, she would be filled with such terrible confidence that she might just march downstairs in it.

She couldn’t.

Her stomach complained again—dimly, she realized she hadn’t eaten anything the evening prior—and she hauled herself out of bed.  Without looking at the dress, she crossed the room to the wardrobe and found her familiar ugly clothes.  They would do for breakfast.

Only once the Viscount had led her outside, the breakfast table far behind them, did Ashbourne ask how she was feeling that morning.  His voice was gentle, his expression kindly.  Amelia stopped up the immediate rush of tears that threatened to spill all over everything.

“That well, hm?” he murmured, and glanced backwards.  “We are out of everyone’s sight.  It is terribly forward of me, but I can offer you an embrace and a shoulder for you to cry on.  I’m sure there is an absolute tumult inside of you.”

Grinding tears from her eyes, Amelia looked back herself, finding only hedgerows and flowers behind them.  “That’s… very kind, but… I don’t think I could…”

“An arm, then?” he suggested, proferring said appendage.

She grasped it as if it were a liferaft in a freezing storm.

“There, now,” he murmured, patting her hand on his arm and directing them deeper into the garden.  “And before your brain leaps forward to worry how anyone might perceive two people in breeches leaning on each other in the gardens, I assure you it’s quite an ordinary sight around here.”

“I… came upon a few people in the gardens last night,” Amelia said, without thinking.

“I’m sure they did, too,” the Viscount responded with a twist in the corner of his lip.  “What happens here can be rather… intimidating to the uninitiated.  Was it a difficult gauntlet to run?”

“No,” she answered immediately—politely, deferentially—but the trailing vowel drew out longer than she intended, and to her surprise she found she wasn’t done speaking.  “Well.  There were a few rather shocking tableaux… more than a few, in all honesty.  But the difficulty wasn’t in seeing them, but in feeling… somewhat guilty at being shocked by them.  Naked lovers in the garden aside, most of it was just… a party.”

The Viscount made an encouraging sound and turned a corner down a hedgerow, letting her speak.

“There was one woman, early in the… well, early in my run through your gauntlet,” she went on, a slight smile tugging at her cheek.  “There were three or four people hip-to-hip on the sofa.”

“Scandalous,” Ashbourne hissed, softly enough so as not to actually interrupt.

“Yes, but on top of them, laid out across them all, was this young woman.  And she was simply talking with the gentleman in whose lap she rested her head.”  She paused, looked at a rosebush without really seeing the blooms.  “She looked so comfortable.  I envied her desperately.  And also I was shocked at her pose.  And also I didn’t think I should feel shocked.  Because it seemed so… natural to her.  At ease.  And I think that’s what I envied the most.”

“The siren song of the libertines,” Ashbourne mused.  “Drop your burdens and be at ease with yourself.  Which is easier said than done, of course.”

“It seems impossible.”

He nodded, looking off into the trees.  “It’s meant to, I think.  The walls of the corral must look unscalable, lest the sheep remember they can jump.”

“I couldn’t wear the dress you had laid out for me,” Amelia confessed, rather needlessly given that she was plainly not wearing said dress.  “I… I wanted to, but… I didn’t know who would be at breakfast, and I couldn’t—”

“Hush, dear,” Ashbourne soothed, petting her hand.  “I apologize if it was too much.  I wanted to give you the option, if you were inclined to take it.  Most of the current houseguests will trickle off over the course of the day.  Breakfast tomorrow will be a much more private affair.  You can wear the dress then, or not, however the morning takes you.”

“Perhaps it is for the best,” she found herself saying.  “I haven’t embarassed myself before the crowd.  I can set out today as well,” her mouth kept moving, flapping along on a wave of panic flooding through her.  “We can forget I was ever here.”

Ashbourne rested his hand on top of hers and brought their leisurely pace to a halt.  “I think that would be a poor choice on your part,” he told her gravely, seeking out and holding eye contact.  “If you wish to leave, of course you may, and if you wish to be forgotten, I will do that for you.  But I think that path will only deliver you to sadness.”

She looked into his grey eyes for the longest time.  Finally, she breathed, “But it’s impossible.”

He smiled, making the wrinkles around his eyes bunch up tighter.  “I can tell you with certainty that it is not.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  Watched the entire process.”

Amelia’s heart threatened to hammer right out of her ribcage. 

Ashbourne started moving again, his arm under hers gently guiding her back into motion.  For a moment she stared down at their intertwined arms, trying to make sense of the image.  His arm jutted out, elbow gently cocked, steady and unmoving.  Hers wrapped around and over his, curved and coiled, taking the proferred support.  Had she ever linked arms with someone like this?  Like a woman?

“Tell me how you came to us?” he suggested, the soft upturn in his voice making it clear that it she could dissemble as easily as answer.

“I’ve had your name for months, nearly a year, but I hesitated,” Amelia admitted with a sigh.  “I was referred to you, if you can call it that, by Mademoiselle d’Eon.”

Ashbourne immediately made an awkward, half-choked sound, as if he were beating down an involuntary response.  “Nasty business.  Those proceedings should never have been performed in the first place,” he growled, and then his voice turned even darker to snarl, “let alone published.”  But then he sniffed and forced a smile to bestow on Amelia.  “But I gather it brought you to us.”

“Yes,” she answered with a bob of her head.  “You see, I thought at first that she’d been putting me on.  I… paid to have an audience with her, which sounds tawdrier than I like to admit.  And I thought perhaps she was only telling me what I wanted to hear, to string me along.”  She looked at the gravel path slowly passing under their feet and tried to not remember the damp little room with its moldering wallpaper and the pathetic little bed in its center.  “The interview was not pleasant, and to be perfectly honest I had a decidedly uncharitable reaction to the conditions to which she’d been reduced.  I resolved to put it from my mind entirely, but then the autopsy…”

The Viscount looked off to the horizon.  “‘Roundness of limbs, breasts remarkably full,’ if I remember correctly.  So kind of the newspapermen to banish all speculation as to the lady’s sex at the trivial cost of stripping her corpse of what small tatters of dignity remained.”

Amelia nodded guiltily.  “As you say.  It should never have been performed or published, no matter how much celebrity she’d gathered in life.  But I am ashamed to say that I was just as tempted as any other voyeur, and when I read the articles… there it was, in black and white.  Which made me consider her referral in a different light.”

Ashbourne nodded slowly.  “The mademoiselle was a regular guest here for some time.  As far back, in fact, as when she called herself Chevalier d’Eon.  We knew she was a spy, of course—she never made it much of a secret—but she was also a friend.  For some time.”

“And the… techniques she used,” Amelia pressed, “she learned here?”

He chuckled at that.  “In the end, I think she taught us as much as we taught her.  But yes.  The techniques she used are available here.  If you’re willing to apply them.”

“How can I not?” Amelia breathed, heedless with relief and hope.

“Some are rather distasteful,” he told her, as if she wanted an answer to her question.  “And many take a great deal of time, and patience, and quite frankly harder work than that which someone of your station is accustomed.  It is not an easy thing, and others have started only to give it up.”

She bit back her immediate response.  Unlike many of her peers, Amelia understood that she enjoyed a life of relative luxury.  She knew from experience that her family’s money and station meant that she could have most anything she wanted. The girl had blown through all manner of indulgences, especially after she had realized what she actually wanted.  That one, the impossible one, she could never ask for.  So she asked for all the others for a good long time, not that they ever satisfied for long.  Not when she knew what she really wanted.

Here in the cool morning air of the most disreputable manor house in the kingdom, she wondered at her long refusal to ask.  She had not shared how she felt with her parents, her brother, her best friend.  Had it been fear of their censure that held her back, or the fact that this want, unlike all the other trifles, would take work?

She hadn’t known it was even possible… but no.  That was a lie she had told herself.  She had known it was possible.  Possible and scandalous.  Unnatural.  Sinful, even.  But there had always been stories, and for all her adult life there had been the Mademoiselle-Chevalier d’Eon gallavanting through the newspapers.  The possibility had always been there.

The simple fact was that she had made herself forget that it was possible many times over.  She had convinced herself that d’Eon was a charlatan, that the other stories were just rumors.  She told herself that it might be possible for some blessed others—specially touched by the gods like Tireseus—but not for her.  Possible for those who would put in the work.

All she had ever been was a spoiled little girl.  The daughter of a duke who didn’t know he had a daughter because she’d never screwed up the courage to tell him.  She’d never worked at anything her whole life.  And now she thought she could do this?

“A friend of mine recently passed,” she found herself saying.  “We’d grown up together, gone to school together.  He was thrown from his horse in the street.  Broke his leg.  We thought he would recover, but… a fever took him.  He was gone before I could even visit.”

Ashbourne’s hand was warm atop hers.  “Condolences, my dear.  It’s so much more difficult when they go too young.”

“He was going to propose,” she tried to explain.  “He’d written me, confiding that he was… quite smitten, and hopeful.  He had her father’s permission.  He had been riding to her home when…”  Her grip on his arm tightened involuntarily. “When something startled his horse.”

They stepped out of the hedge maze onto a promontory that overlooked the manor grounds and the landscape beyond.  The rugged welsh terrain rolled out before them; the ribbon of the Usk glimmered among the rippling fields and horse-dotted pastures.  Fingers of morning mist were still retreating into the crooks of hills.

“Anthony didn’t get to live his life,” she told the tableau.  “And I haven’t been living mine.  When my time does come, I want to have been living my life.  No matter how much work it is to do so.”

The Viscount contemplated the landscape with her for a long while.  “Very well, then.”

“Finally, some housekeeping details,” he said later, waving his hand as if they were trivial and unimportant even as he added, “Rather important housekeeping details.”  He scowled ahead to the house, which they were fast approaching.

She nodded and tried to look attentive.

Ahead of them, a handful of guests lounged about the patio, chatting and reading.  Ashbourne slowed his steps to keep the conversation private.  “You must treat Uskweirs a bit like faerieland,” he explained.  “There are different rules here which must be followed, and there are grave consequences if they are not.”

She smiled in no small measure of relief.  “Your grace, there is nothing I would appreciate more than having the rules of this place laid out clearly and explicitly.  That is a favor which I have often longed for in other milleux.”

“No one is invited to Uskweirs,” the Viscount began, his measured tone belying how often he had recited the faerie rules of his manor.  “Everyone who is here found their own way here.  We went over that last night.  So no one is invited to Uskweirs, but also: no one ever visits Uskweirs.”

Amelia frowned softly.  “I’m not following.”

“No one admits to visiting Uskweirs,” he clarified, watching her closely for understanding.  “You don’t talk about your time here.  You don’t talk about who you saw here.  You don’t talk about what you saw here.  Not to anyone that you haven’t seen here at Uskweirs with your own eyes.”

She nodded, but that didn’t seem sufficient.  “I would never betray this confidence, your grace.”

He patted the small of her back with a smile that turned from affectionate to indulgent. “Now, feel free to talk about what you heard happened here all you like.  Hearsay.  Gossip.  Make up even more salacious details that you heard about; it’s something of a little game that many of our guests play.  But you were never here, yourself.  So you never saw anything yourself.”

“Of course.”

Ashbourne started his litany from the top again.  “No one has ever been invited to Uskweirs and no one has ever visited Uskweirs, but a few people have been banned from visiting.”  His voice grew grave.  “They spoke when they ought not.  They took it upon themselves to invite others.  And now they’re banned.  I hate to do it, but it is occasionally necessary to preserve the safety of everyone else.  Many of our guests are of a social caliber that protects them from consequences, but most are not.  And I take the safety of my guests very seriously.”

“Despite no one ever visiting you,” she agreed with a slight smirk.

But he did not mirror her amusement back.  Instead, he looked pained to continue. They stopped, at the edge of the gardens with the doors back into the solarium a stone’s throw away.  “And lastly…. understand that if you try to go to the authorities—a magistrate, the church, the House of Lords—to stir up trouble for us…”  His blue-grey eyes were suddenly on her, boring into her.  She could not look away.  “I will destroy you.  Socially.  Politically.  Financially.  In every way that matters.”

Amelia tried to smile, to chuckle, to alleviate the sudden, vicious seriousness in his previously avuncular manner.  But her face refused to answer her; her eyes were trapped in his icy gaze.  She managed a shaky nod without moving her eyes at all.  “Yes, your grace.  Of— of course, your grace.”

He held her gaze for a moment longer, and then nodded.  “Good.  Now since you’ll be staying with us for some time, I’d like to introduce you to my daughter.”  With gentle guidance, he directed the both of them toward the house.

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