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The Adventures of Ratha James: Part Twelve
A sudden deafening knock shattered Ratha’s morbid recollections and she found herself standing before a large gilt-framed looking-glass, one hand raised to touch the burnished skin beneath her eyes. For a moment the ghost of a lingering bruise darkened her sun-kissed skin before fading back into haunted memory. She shuddered, her stomach roiling sickeningly as the briefest flicker of remembered terror touched her very soul. Ratha purposefully turned away from the mirror, squelching the fear before it took root. It was this place, the past would give her no peace here. She would never feel safe on English soil, no matter how many years since her escape. Perhaps it was a mistake to come back after all.
“Amalee Ratha James!” Madeline called irately from the other side of the bedroom door. “I know you can hear me in there! St. Clare needs to speak with us before dinner so hurry and finish dressing and meet us in the library. Joona’s laid out something for you to wear on the chair near the fire, which I’d wager you haven’t even noticed,” Maddie huffed the last to herself, but Amalee heard her through the door clear enough. “If you need help with the lacing, there’s maid here in the hall.”
Lacing? Ratha flinched, her horror renewing as she turned to investigate the clothes Maddie had rightfully guessed she had not yet noticed, preoccupied as she was with the unnerving eclipse of past and present she always felt in this house. She strode towards the crackling fireplace with misapprehension heavy in her heart before stumbling to a halt with a insuppressibly hiss of displeasure. A sturdy wooden chair stood at the ready, swathed in a vision of frothy, endless emerald silk — the color so deep and vivid the gown nearly burned with a life all its own. Like drops of glistening dew, emeralds and fiery diamonds rained over the bodice and the delicate, gossamer lace net covering the full, wide skirts. The gems sparkled wildly in the dancing firelight, but the corners of Ratha’s mouth turned down in a hearty scowl.
What in the blazing Hell was St. Clare up to?!
Grumbling more than a baited bear, Ratha precariously descended the wide, marble staircase in her borrowed finery, on route to the magnificent St. Clare library. With its dark paneled elegance and diamond-paned floor to ceiling windows overlooking the ever-surging sea below, the library was by far her favorite room in this opulent home. Yet even now, the thought of all those lovely leader-bound books could not rid her of the irritation of drowning in St. Clare’s accursed gown. She pulled at the confines of the gem-encrusted bodice as gently but forcibly as she could as she fought to straighten her shoulders and get in a decent breath of air. The damn gown was pinching her mercilessly and she nearly tripped over the billowing yards of skirts. Again. She yearned desperately for the simple freedom of her fitted leather trousers and the bliss of airy linen shirts. With a misstep of her borrowed heeled shoes, she toppled sideways, righting herself at the last moment, swearing eloquently like the sailor she truly was. And boots. She desperately missed her boots.
After six years at sea, Ratha had lost all appreciation for and what little understanding she had of, the beautiful gowns worn by her sex. With her father’s wealth in relative tatters her whole childhood, she’d grown up in plain, simple gowns and serviceable boots, and after she left home for England, Derek certainly never liked her so fully clothed as all this… So she had been quite happy to trade dresses for trousers and confinement for freedom and in the years since, the occasions she’s had since to wear such frippery were few and each heartily despised.
But it was more than the mere fact that clothing was uncomfortable, it was dangerous. The gown was heavy and far too long should she need to run, and she could barely breathe in such a tight bodice — though she congratulated herself on her own firm refusal to wear the whale-bone corset Joona provided — and more importantly, there was no place to conceal her weapons in a garment such as this. She felt the loss of her array of array of hidden blades usually latched to wrist, thigh, ankle, and stomach, as well as the elegant promise of her rapier on her hips, and the blunt surety of the pair of pistols strapped to her belt. Were it not Joona’s own gown, Ratha would have cut slits into the skirts and other strategic places to hide her smaller weapons before emerging from her room, but as the dress belonged to her friend, she resisted the temptation. In the end, Ratha was forced to comfort herself with the knowledge that she was not completely defenseless. The smallest of her knives rested securely between her breasts and the pins securing her dark chestnut hair were sharp enough to inflict damage, were she inclined to, as well as the small pistol strapped to her right calf, and the longer sheathed knife on her left.
Perhaps it was foolish to worry so in the home of her trusted friends, but Ratha James was an outlaw in this land, and Amalee Richards an escaped prisoner. Should she be taken as either it would surely mean her death. These gowns were lush, extravagant creations of exquisite, otherworldly beautiful art, but there was no damned, beautiful dress worth her life.