“AAAP!” A loud gasp escaped Elouise again as she felt another tight tug squeeze her ribs together. Behind her, Mrs Wellens frowned as she adjusted the corset. “Breathe out, dearie,” she patted her on the back. Obediently, Elouise let out a loud exhale, but it seemed to do little to relieve the pressure on her gut. She felt Mrs Wellens shift position behind and so braced herself for another painful fashion statement.

In the room next door, Hugh stifled a laugh. How amusing was it to see someone as direct as her falter under imposed gender constraints (literally). The women in his life barely made a sound but there she was protesting out loud. “Having problems, my ladies?” he called from behind the door. “Aaaaaoooooo don’t bother y’self,” came the boisterous, strained reply chock full of East-Ended accent. Hugh chuckled.

After a few more grunts and gasps, Mrs Wellens finally did up the back of the undergarment and let out a sigh. Elouise wheezed and clapped a hand to her stomach. “At least it’s harder to run a dagger through my middle now. But I can’t look behind me!,” she said breathlessly. “For heaven’s sakes, dearie you’re going to a party! Not some awful bar-fight,” Mrs Wellens exclaimed. “Never too late to be prepared, M’Lady,” Elouise grinned and picked up her dagger from the table to be strapped to her ankle. But the corset prevented her from stooping any lower than a polite bow and painfully held her middle upright. “Wha-w-wha…? I can’t bend!” she cried after trying many angles to unsuccessfully even touch her knees. “Ladies are not supposed to lower to unsightly angles,” Mrs Wellens explained. “But my knife!” Elouise continued. “Stays out of sight. In the drawer. Women are not supposed to carry arms!,” Mrs Wellens commented. Elouise gawked. What if some bellend came after her with a club? She couldn’t defend herself, let alone run away. This blasted thing stopped her from breathing in proper, even standing still.

“Hugh?!” Elouise called, desperate for persuasion for Mrs Wellens to let her carry at least one weapon. “Listen to Mrs Wellens, Montoya. You’re going as my lady companion, not… your usual self,” his voice came from behind the door. Reluctantly, Elouise gave Mrs Wellens her knife. “Now sit tight dearie, while I fetch your dress,” Mrs Wellens chirped and went off. Elouise stood still for a few moments, trying to find a comfortable way to breathe. She glanced at a chair and bit her lip. Very very carefully, she eased herself into it. Leaning back a little, she found that by arching her back slightly helped her cut off the rising dizziness and let her take in more air. But this was a strenuous position, and she estimated that she wouldn’t last the evening like this.

“Are you clothed?” Hugh called out. Elouise grunted a yes. Her chest was covered and the long underskirt was no different from her regulars so she didn’t see any indecency. The bedroom door opened and Hugh walked into the study. He wore a simple vest over his white shirt with dark coloured trousers and a white cravat neatly tied below his chin. He spotted Elouise in the chair and frowned. “You said you were clothed,” he remarked. “These are clothes,” she snapped back. Hugh shrugged.

He noticed her flushed face and awkward posture. “You look…,” he started but bit back the rising laugh. Elouise shot him an unamused look. “Why do you want me to go anyway? It’s not like I can dance or anything,” she sank into the chair. “Hmm maybe not. But maybe you’ll understand my preferences a bit more if you see the surroundings I grew up with,” he smiled. Elouise scoffed but a smile spread across her face.

“So I have to endure this to understand you?” she grinned unbelieving, gesturing at the corset. Hugh though for a bit, then nodded matter-of-factly. “Her expression showed her confusion and ridicule and reluctance. “Toss you and your fancy britches,” she spouted humorously. “Elouise! Mind your language while Mrs Wellens is still around!” Hugh hazarded.