Not even remotely trusting Gent in the matter, Tulette did the rest of the negotiating with Kenreciel, after which the Yndikette departed. As it was by this time rather late, the mercenaries made for bed without speaking much: Gent was still too upset to have any desire for unrelated conversation, and the details of the job were even less palatable; Sibba, who’d had a trying day of drunkenness and beating Gent up, was yawning and stumbling; Tulette was just pleased with herself.

Gent could not sleep immediately, which was no surprise: he was still boiling. It didn’t help that, although they quieted sooner than usual, the women’s tent-giggling seemed more intense tonight.

It was a while before he could cool down, as every time it seemed he might be starting to, he’d think about one or another of the maddening aspects of the deal and his rage would reignite. Even once he’d managed to breathe normally for a while and entertain one or two non-violent reflections, he still wasn’t sure he could go through with this. It might have been something to which he could eventually reconcile himself if he hadn’t so heartily disapproved of the deception involved. Not that he disapproved of deception in general — the life of a mercenary would be all the more difficult if he did — but trickery to make a statement or prove a point was not his style.

Why couldn’t that Kenreciel just tell his little club in some normal, straightforward way that he didn’t like them? Write them a letter, send them a delegation, spell it out in river channels or giant blocks of stone or whatever Yndikette elementists did? Gent would even be willing to lend him a hand with that, even for a much lower price. Not that he would object to the extravagant hundred… Here, however, where it was an incontestable inducement for his partners to force his involvement, he would rather have no job and no pay. But that wishy-washy man had to be roundabout and offer an unheard-of sum to get a mercenary to play stupid games just to tell some people he didn’t want to come to their parties anymore.

Well, since he had to be involved, Gent had to admit, little as he wanted to say it even to himself, Tulette was right: the idea of going as a woman was less repulsive than that of going as a man. It would allow the appearance of normalcy, whereas going as himself would allow the appearance of… whatever they were calling it these days. But why the fool Yndikette should need to resort to this absurd method at all was beyond Gent. Why couldn’t he just tell them how he felt? Write a song about it and have someone else perform it for them, maybe?

His thoughts thus running in agitated figure-eights, he lay awake for some time; so fierce was his continuing irritation through his dreams that he scarcely knew the difference between sleep and waking until morning came.

As was usually the case, he rose before his companions. Feeling a good deal calmer than the night before, he further steadied his mood by a refreshing bath in the stream. He was quite hungry, and apparently his partners felt the same, for by the time he returned to camp they were up and preparing breakfast. This was a meal they didn’t often bother with, since food that was travel-worthy wasn’t usually breakfast-worthy, but under certain circumstances — such as when they’d expended a lot of energy the day before and eaten only an incomplete supper — Sibba in particular was good at making the best of what they had.

Gent was afraid they would want to discuss the job over their morning meal, and just the anticipation of this revived the night’s mood somewhat; but their only conversation involved the dreams they’d had during sleep. Tulette’s were always bizarrely surreal, Sibba’s extraordinarily absurd, and therefore excellent topics of discussion. Subsequently, Gent took down and packed the tent while the ladies cleaned up after the meal and got everything else ready to go.

“The town we’re meeting him in is called Rambleton Heights or something pretentious like that.” This was the first mention anyone had made all morning of the current situation, and it was made in the businesslike tone Tulette always used to discuss… business.

“I do not want to hear it,” Gent growled as he took up his pack and stalked away. He’d known he couldn’t put this off very long.

Tulette trotted after him on one side while Sibba’s long stride brought her quickly even with him on the other. “The gathering is in five days, so we may be a little rushed to find an outfit for you,” the former continued placidly.

Gent’s grumbling reply went unheard as Sibba remarked, “Took him a while to find us, didn’t it?”

“Or maybe he just waited until the last minute to make it more difficult for us,” suggested Gent.

“You know, Gent,” Tulette remarked, “it’s not his fault he thought you were a woman; he only had rumor to go on.”

“I know that!” Gent replied somewhat explosively. “That is not what bothers me.”

“And you really can’t blame him for still wanting you, either,” persisted Tulette, “after he’d searched the whole area for you!”

But then she seemed rather to listen to Sibba’s comment, “I’m still surprised it took him so long to catch up with us,” than Gent’s, “Yes, I can, when you two are right here!”

“We do present conflicting reports,” Tulette answered Sibba.

“Except the one about us being all women,” Sibba grinned.

“Except that one,” Tulette agreed. “But back to the plan.”

“I do not want to hear it.” Gent quickened his pace.

“We’ll avoid the common room wherever we stay, take our meals above, to avoid the usual trouble. Sibba and I will find a dress for you while you hide at the inn.”

This was too much. “Hide?” Gent roared. “Hide? You would use that word when you are not even part of this bedamned job??”

“Cull, it’s exactly what you’ll be doing, isn’t it?” Tulette’s tone had tightened. “You wouldn’t actually come dress-shopping with us.”

“Of course I would not. But not wanting to be mistaken for a woman again is not the same as hiding!”

Tulette took a deep breath. “Gent, I’ve never said it… it needs to be said: this… obsession of yours with not being mistaken for a woman gets more insulting the longer you cling to it.”

Gent was not too blunt to note the rather serious shift the conversation was taking; whether he was capable of keeping the issue from escalating further was a matter of greater question. Struggling to keep his voice relatively calm he asked, “Why should it insult you that I do not wish to be taken for something I am not?”

“Because by getting so upset every time someone suggests it, you make it seem like there’s something wrong with being a woman… that the thought of being a woman is so horrible it’s worth getting that angry over.”

Gent had never thought of it that way before, and admitted as much. “But,” he added, “you must know I do not think so lowly of women. I just do not like to be misunderstood. That is only natural.”

“You take it too far, Gent!” Tulette’s tone, now more exasperated than angry, indicated that true crisis had been averted. “You’re too touchy about it!”

I am too touchy? I believe you are the one reading insult into my actions.”

“Not your actions, your attitude.”

“My attitude has nothing to do with women! It is about people getting false impressions about me!” This statement was half drowned out, however, when Sibba, throwing an arm around Gent’s shoulders and shoving a branch-bourne cluster of berries and leaves into his face, demanded loudly,

“D’nae you think this looks like the king??”

There was a long moment of silence. Gent, who could not call to mind the king’s face, blinked, but eventually Tulette began to laugh. “It does… if he were drunk, his face all red, his nose swollen…”

Though the argument, or a different one, would undoubtedly begin again, for the moment the tension had dissipated. In any event, they were all still alive when they reached their destination late that evening.

They always got two adjoining rooms when the inn offered such, and Gent felt his annoyance and surliness returning on hearing the women’s discussion turn to colors and materials and fashions before the door between the chambers had even fully closed. If either of them had ever had occasion to wear a dress herself he might have been able to pretend that they weren’t talking about him…

With an angry breath he lay down on the bed. Was Tulette doing this to prove some point about his attitude? Or was it actually belated payback for Lillicort?

He sighed. No, a hundred dren was incentive enough… she wasn’t being deliberately annoying, and he didn’t need to look any farther than the price for a reason for this nonsense. Really, he wanted the payoff as much as his partners did, and knew that the only way to get it was either to pose as a woman or to pose as… something else. Having chosen the lesser of these two evils, he really could not blame the ladies for being entertained and pleased by a situation that must amuse, couldn’t inconvenience, and would eventually reward so handsomely. But understanding did not lessen his anger, and he had a feeling he wasn’t going to sleep very well again.

He was right about that, but made up for it by sleeping in. In fact, it was nearly afternoon when Sibba and Tulette burst in and awakened him with the news that they’d ordered lunch and something incomprehensible about dressmakers. So Gent was immediately angry again, but at least he wasn’t too tired. And the inn’s food was good.

After they had all finished eating, the women had more dress-related talk they wanted to inflict on him. Gent’s immediate reaction, of course, was, “I do not want to hear it,” but, as usual, he was overruled.

Sewing was not something at which any of them were particularly proficient, but Sibba, who generally handled their incidental mending, knew enough to do what she called ‘Taking Gent’s Measurements’ — a process for which, for manifold reasons, Gent had trouble standing still.

Then, as the women traipsed off to finish the nasty business, the fuming Gent decided to see if this town had an exercise arena where he could work off some of this angry tension. Luck was with him, even so far as to provide him an adequate sparring partner (though the eventual comment of this person to the effect of never having seen a woman so good with a sword put somewhat of a damper on his regenerating contentment), and he returned to the inn late, exhausted, and sweaty to fall into bed after a brief hot bath.

It was the next evening as they waited for their supper to be brought up that a large cream-colored box tied in ribbons was delivered, to the great satisfaction of Sibba and Tulette.

“Here it is!” the latter said proudly as she pulled the garment out and held it up.

Gent took only a brief glance at his doom and then stalked to the window with his back to them.

“Not even going to look at it, after all our trouble,” Sibba complained, though her tone was distinctly amused.

“Why should I look at it now when I will be wearing it all night at the end of the week?” he demanded without turning.

Sibba laughed. “No one’d mistake you for a woman hearing you say something like that.”

“In case you have forgotten, I am not a woman.”

“How could we possibly forget that?” Tulette wondered with airy sardonicism.

“My point is that I do not give a damn about clothing,” Gent grumbled, “or any of that other woman stuff.”

“If you didn’t care about clothing, you wouldn’t cling so fiercely to your long sleeves and fancy collars,” Tulette pointed out blandly.

Rather than start that old argument again, Gent allowed in a somewhat defeated tone, “Tell me about the dress.”

Unsurprisingly, when the women started going on about ‘forest green’ and ‘beige’ and Gent’s ‘natural coloring,’ Gent found himself rather lost. With another glance at the dress, he had to wonder how they could possibly find so much to say about it. The only part he understood was about the belt-like strap designed to hold his sword, but, even so, there really shouldn’t be that much to say about the thing.

“We will need to make sure it fits,” Tulette said suddenly, breaking off the nonsense for this even less palatable statement.

Gent had known this moment would come. With a deep breath he turned slowly, forcing himself not to roar at her for being deliberately provoking. Of course he needed to try it on; if it didn’t fit right, there wouldn’t be much between him and the other misconception. And if he resisted at this point it would only make things worse. He’d agreed to this — albeit under duress — and might as well suffer in (relative) silence.

He tended to avoid even near-nakedness in front of his partners, since they always managed to give off an aura both of intense scrutiny and complete indifference, which left him feeling somehow inadequate — but here was little point to modesty, and they insisted on helping him into the dress anyway. Again Gent struggled not to explode. Of course they had to help him don a garment he didn’t entirely understand and was liable to damage; they were being prudent, not patronizing. He did protest when Tulette began unbraiding his hair without his permission, however.

“We need to see the effect,” she said soothingly. “I’ll braid it up for you again when we’re done.”

“Or I will,” Sibba added with a touch of amusement, given that Tulette’s braiding skills were not the best. She was just finishing up the buttons on the back of the monstrosity Gent was now wearing.

“It seems a little loose here in front,” he muttered, pulling at the sagging bust to show what he meant.

“That’s what these are for,” Sibba replied, moving to where he could see her and holding up what appeared to be a pair of small draw-string bags.

Gent closed his eyes against the sight.

“We didn’t dare make them too big, or that Yndikette would be able to tell even through the cloak,” Tulette was explaining cheerfully as Sibba arranged the objects in their place. “Of course we don’t want him to notice until it’s too late for him to object.”

Gent had serious doubts about what point that would be.

“But we didn’t want to do without them entirely,” she concluded as Sibba stepped back to join her. Then they both stared at him in silence.

“What?” he demanded, surly, after several moments.

“Cull… I was prepared to run the risk of violence by laughing,” Tulette said slowly, “but you don’t look at all funny…”

“Aye, you just look… good,” corroborated Sibba.

Gent’s discomfort was rather heightened than allayed by this, and when Tulette began after a minute or so to search for a mirror so he could share the view of his convincing femininity, he refused emphatically. “I will take your word for it.”

“Walk around a bit, at least,” Tulette commanded. “You need to be used to it.”

Complying, Gent wasn’t sure how to feel when he found it not at all difficult.

“Walks like a man,” observed Sibba.

“I am a man,” Gent muttered. The dress, although little bulkier than his usual attire, was feeling more and more oppressive by the moment.

“Draw your sword,” was Tulette’s next order. “Make sure the dress isn’t going to get in your way if there’s trouble.”

“The dress is going to get in my way no matter what I do,” Gent grumbled as he obeyed.

“You could just go as a man,” Tulette shrugged. “In any event, the dress doesn’t seem to be hampering your motion.”

He put the weapon away and announced, “I am taking this off now.”

“Let me help.” Sibba hastily approached him. His motions were unnecessarily jerky during the process, causing Sibba to berate him more than once. And then…

The feeling of being once again properly grounded… yet free… of return to self… it was nearly overwhelming.

“A man’s always happy to get a woman’s dress off,” Sibba grinned, “but I never saw one light up quite like that.”

Even Gent had to admit that this was somewhat amusing, and, though it did little to improve his overall mood, they did manage for the most part to get to bed without harsh words.

The next day and a half were tedious. Tulette didn’t want Gent to visit the common room (some uncalled-for comment about ‘causing riots’ and ‘getting us thrown out’), the exercise arena no longer welcomed him (some insane accusation about a ‘violent outburst’ the other day), and there was only so much time he could spend in the market before it ceased to be at all entertaining. He didn’t really want to hasten what he was coming to consider his night of punishment, but he was beginning to wish the time would just arrive already so he could get it over with. And of course it finally did.

Gent had spoken out against a king, sidled along a crumbling ledge above a four hundred foot drop, and faced down an enraged dragon-boar, but somehow had never been more nervous than when he met Kenreciel in that dress. The women were harping at him quietly about his posture and not gripping his cloak about him so secretively up until the very moment the Yndikette appeared.

They’d decided to wait outside the inn so as to take advantage of the lower light, but it almost seemed they needn’t have bothered since Kenreciel didn’t even glance at what any of them were wearing. He was clad in an enveloping cloak as heavy as Gent’s, and that was a relief.

“Here you all are, aren’t you?” he beamed in greeting. He looked very pleased with himself.

Gent might have groused aloud if he hadn’t been so apprehensive, and, probably anticipating this, Tulette replied heartily, “Here we all are! How are you?”

“Excellent,” Kenreciel bowed. “Very pleased to do business with you. I’ve brought your advance, of course, and I see you’re ready, master Gent!”

Once again Gent was not quite capable of the angry response he would prefer to make, and wasn’t sure what to do or say instead, so he remained silent and relatively blank-faced as the cheerful Yndikette handed over a clinking purse that Tulette quickly confirmed contained ten five-dren pieces. Gent was severely annoyed to find that she had settled for a smaller advance than the one he’d proposed.

“Now, shall we?” Kenreciel turned back to Gent.

Gent nodded wordlessly.

“Good night, ladies,” Kenreciel bade the others with a dazzling smile from beneath his hood, then turned and started for whever they were going. Gent could do nothing but follow.

“Have fun, Gent!” Sibba called after them. In response he made a very rude gesture over his shoulder at her, not caring who else might see and be offended by it. And then they were around the corner.

“I want you to know,” Gent announced, speaking for the first time since Kenreciel had arrived, “that I do not like you, and I do not like your plan.”

“Oh?” Kenreciel stirred, but from this angle Gent could not see his face. “You don’t like me, you say; yet you barely know me.”

“I know all I need to,” Gent replied, grumbling somewhat. “You do not like these people and you do not approve of the way they do things, so what do you do? You bring a man to their party in the hopes they will not invite you again.”

“I thought it was rather clever,” Kenreciel returned in a tone of mild protestation. “What would you do?”

“I would tell them to fuck off,” answered Gent bluntly.

Kenreciel gave a slightly startled laugh. “I’m afraid it’s a little more complicated than that.”

“Things are only ‘more complicated’ because people decide they are,” Gent muttered.

After several moments of silence, “You seem to speak from personal experience,” Kenreciel remarked.

Gent nodded. “I left my home kingdom because I disagreed with some of the decisions the king I served was making. I was his daughter’s bodyguard. Did I decide that that made things too complicated for me to speak my mind? No!”

“Then you may be more courageous than I am,” Kenreciel smiled. It sounded, rather than an honest remark, like a convenient way to close the discussion, since he now seemed to be paying more attention to the street markers as they walked.

Gent hadn’t really thought about it — obviously — but it occurred to him now that there was no way a bunch of Yndikette were going to gather in a Merezion town, and that the border of the Yndikette kingdom — whatever it was called — was leagues away. Gent wasn’t sure he could conceal what he was wearing through a long coach ride. “Where exactly are we going?” he asked at length, trying to sound neither surly nor nervous.

“Oh, didn’t your friend tell you?” Kenreciel replied a little absently. “The party’s on Theraden, so we’re windthreading there.”

“Theraden?” Gent echoed. “Windthreading??”

“She really didn’t tell you?” Kenreciel paused and turned his hooded head toward Gent. “But you have windthreaded before…?”

In grim annoyance, Gent shook his own head.

“It takes some adjusting to, but it’s not bad,” the Yndikette reassured, then broke into a happy, almost childlike smile. “Actually, I love it! And this is the correct street here, finally, so come on!”

With a long, irritated breath, Gent obeyed.

When they arrived at the windthreader’s shop and the woman was informed that it was Gent’s first time, the mercenary was subjected to a little lecture on the history of windthreading, the principles behind it, and the potential side effects. None of it was interesting enough to justify the waste of time, but Gent noticed that Kenreciel listened with no great signs of impatience. Was that because he was an elementist, or because he was no more eager to reach their destination than Gent was? The mercenary entertained brief thoughts of trying to convince the other man that playing hooky would be just as effective a snub and a lot more fun — but it was too late for that: the threader was finishing up and it was time to go.

The process, at least, was interesting: after gesturing complexly over them both, the woman made an upward jabbing motion in the direction of a large window a good fifteen feet above the floor of the large room. Then she stood with her open hand raised for several minutes while Gent struggled to recall what she’d just told him about this in order to figure out what she was waiting for. Then her hand closed, as if indeed around an invisible thread, and she began setting a form with the other. Slightly nervous, Gent awaited its conclusion, but had no real warning thereof.

For abruptly, with the strange sensation of his body tightening as if some improbable lacing throughout his form had been suddenly pulled close, he was yanked out the window into the sky. At least, so he assumed — it was so mind-bogglingly fast, this transition from stasis to flight, that he really couldn’t be sure. All he knew was the rushing of air, motion faster than any he’d ever experienced, and a blur of earthy colors beneath him.

It was nothing like how he’d imagined flying would feel, and at first it was terrifying. But after several minutes — or so it seemed — he began to grow accustomed to it. There was still a definite lack of control about it, the feeling that he was careening inexorably toward an end over which he had no power, which was distinctly uncomfortable — but, just as Kenreciel had said, the physical sensations weren’t bad once he’d adjusted. So, determined to enjoy something about this day, he tried to convince himself that he was having fun as they dashed onward through the sky toward Theraden. Wherever that was.

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