Theraden, it turned out, was the name of a mountain in the range that was referred to as East Cross in other lands but that the Yndikette called Allaradeny. On the lower slopes and at the southern base of this range was the long, narrow strip the Yndikette inhabited, called by them Yndimorre. Gent still could not remember what the more common name for the place was, though he supposed it didn’t really matter.

This much he was able to get from Kenreciel upon arriving in response to his rather great surprise at finding himself high above the countryside in a sleety, freezing wind. Not that their initial arrival was onto the bare mountain — they landed in a large tent or pavilion, flapping open on all sides, where numerous Yndikette windthreaders were continually catching more new arrivals and whence they were hustled into the cold the moment they touched down.

Beyond finding out exactly where they were, however, there was little opportunity for conversation as they walked, for the driving wind was both noisy and uncomfortable. At times it was downright dangerous, given the slippery condition of the ground. Gent noticed that some of the others traversing the treacherous upward road — really little more than a footpath — were setting forms to make their steps and those of their companions easier and more comfortable; Kenreciel was too busy looking around with craned neck (for what Gent did not know) to do likewise. This left Gent rather angry (and wind-blasted and unsteady), but at least Kenreciel wasn’t playing the gallant escort of a frail protectee. Though Gent got the feeling that he might have ignored a more vulnerable comrade in any event.

The entrance to the mountain’s interior, which was apparently their destination, was markedly inauspicious. If the door were closed, Gent thought, it might be entirely invisible, and certainly no effort had been taken to give it any kind of appealing appearance when open. He could understand, in many cases, the sacrifice of elegance and grandeur for more practical subtlety, but who was going to be assualting a place like this, high on a desolate mountaintop to which they’d had to windthread?

Within was a torch-lined corridor of stone, narrow and rough, that extended into flickering shadows with a curtain at its end. Here Gent would have asked Kenreciel what kind of barbaric society this was, having a party in such a location… but their fellow party-goers, moving along the passage with them, were too close for him to feel entirely secure making such an insulting comment. At least Kenreciel had remembered Gent’s presence; as they traversed the hallways, approaching the curtain and the attendant who stood ready to draw it aside for them, Kenreciel offered Gent his arm. The mercenary took a deep breath, fighting back fruitless anger, and accepted.

Behind the curtain, a much greater degree of civilization manifested itself immediately in the form of a large and well-established cloakroom. Some of the numerous attendants present were assisting those who’d preceded them, others hurrying over as they came through the doorway. One of these, a woman, said something polite-sounding to Gent in a language he didn’t know as she began to help him out of his somewhat ragged cloak.

“Thank you,” he murmured in his own tongue.

Kenreciel, being likewise assisted, was yet glancing over at Gent expectantly, eager for the unveiling of his shock tactics. Gent studiously turned away as the faded black material left his form and revealed what he was wearing.

“What elegant dress,” the woman said in heavily-accented and enthusiastic Arquan.

A sort of choking noise issued from behind him.

Now that the moment had come, Gent found himself plagued by nervousness, embarrassment, and some residual anger — but none to the degree he had expected; irritatingly, Tulette’s reassurance that nobody here would ever see him again had some merit.

He turned slowly, bracing himself, having no way of knowing what his companion might do to him now, his hand hovering close to his sword. Kenreciel was staring, his face an interesting mix of intense bemusement bordering on disbelief and the shattered remnants of his previous anticipation. It didn’t make up for Gent’s discomfort, but it was entertaining.

After several moments, Kenreciel shook himself, stepped forward, and again offered Gent his arm. The mercenary hesitated briefly before accepting it.

“I suppose you’ve won,” the Yndikette said in a quiet, somewhat strained tone as he steered them toward the next doorway. “I never specified how you had to be dressed, did I?”

“You have my partners to thank for it,” Gent informed him at once. “It was not my idea.”

“But you went along with.”

“Yes.” The words grated out from between clenched teeth. “I went along.”

“So I’m back to my original plan and out a hundred dren, and you’ve made your point. Well done.”

But Gent had no response for this, as he was busy examining the room they’d entered. He’d never seen anything remotely like it his entire life.

The great cavern, rising to a shadowed height unguessable above them, was filled with wide round tiers or platforms at various levels connected by sets of shallow, broad steps and railed by intricately carved banisters. Fountains of sparkling liquid of all colors and tables bearing heaps of bright flowers that shone like precious gems seemed to have grown here and there out of these railings rather than been built to fit with them. All was made of the same shimmering, white-veined stone of pale grey, but the tiers seemed to be floating unsupported in midair over an abyss whose depth, like the height of the ceiling, could not be determined in this light. The latter came from innumerable similarly-floating orbs of various, shifting soft hues and what seemed to be a sort of glowing rain that shimmered through the air wherever he looked but was never within arm’s length and disappeared before making contact with any actual object.

“It’s mostly illusion,” Kenreciel informed him as he watched Gent taking this all in, “but it does look much better than last year.”

Little as he cared about the history of these parties, Gent was frankly impressed by the scene and didn’t hesitate to say so.

Kenreciel shrugged. He was steering them from the path of the other incoming guests to a quieter spot near the edge of the entry tier. When he stopped moving, he turned to face Gent with a frown.

“Now, let me look at this,” he murmured, stepping back and sweeping his gaze in a somewhat exaggerated fashion up and down the mercenary’s figure. His eventual assessment was, “It really is too convincing.” Gent scowled, but before he could come up with a retort Kenreciel added, “These are nice; are they real?” He’d stepped forward and begun squeeze-testing the stuffed bust of Gent’s dress before the mercenary could escape. “I suppose not.”

“Of course they are not real,” was Gent’s quiet roar as he jerked away; “what did you expect?” Turning toward the railing to make sure Kenreciel’s actions hadn’t left him with an unsightly misshapen chest he added, “And if they were, you would be in significant trouble now!”

“Come, now, you can’t be angry at me for questioning this costume that’s entirely ruined my plan.”

“Do you think I am any–” Gent began at a hiss, but cut short the tirade as someone approached them with a tray of drinks. In actuality, the waiter seemed to have about twenty small, thin trays stacked on top of each other underneath the one that bore the close-packed cups; he removed one from the bottom, shifting the balance onto his other hand, and, to Gent’s bemusement, set it in the air beside the mercenary at chest-level with a few murmured words. It didn’t even wobble as his hand withdrew; it might have been sitting on an invisible table. Gent wasn’t a stranger to element, but never had he been in a setting where so much of it was so casually present.

He examined the drinks the servant set on the hovering tray as Kenreciel returned thanks in his language for the two little glasses; Gent could not quite make out what they were. Even for hard liquor they were very small cups, and the substance inside them, he noted on closer scrutiny, seemed undrinkably thick. Alcohol was a good idea at this point, but he’d already had his fill of new experiences for the night.

Before he could demand elucidation of his companion, however, said companion resumed the previous topic. “I still can’t believe you did this.” It was a jovially petulant outburst.

“Neither can I,” muttered Gent.

“My plan was so good…” Kenreciel sighed.

“I disagree.” Gent’s tone had not changed.

Kenreciel looked at him with some exasperation but also some growing amusement. “You don’t like this plan any better.”

“No,” Gent agreed.

The elementist’s face now took on a cheerful smile. “I’m glad there’s someone else who’s just as unhappy to be here as I am.”

Gent glowered at him. “What is the problem with telling these people you are not interested in attending these parties? Or even just ignoring the invitations?”

“I told you it’s not that simple.” Kenreciel’s smile twisted into a rueful half-grimace. “Having them deem you an unnecessary addition to the gathering is one thing, but–”

Again they were interrupted. It was merely another tray-bearing servant, but neither of them was willing to continue the discussion when someone might overhear — Gent, obviously, because he didn’t want his cover blown; Kenreciel for what reason the mercenary did not know or really care.

Although Gent wasn’t quite sure what the pasty substance on the little flatbreads was, the hors d’oeuvres were not as puzzling as the drinks. And when Kenreciel remarked gleefully, “I love these things,” the mercenary dared to try the one the Yndikette had handed him. It tasted somehow meaty and tangy at the same time — pork and lime? — and the bread was firm and slightly sour: not a bad combination.

“So how am I expected to drink this?” he asked Kenreciel, turning his cup upside-down and watching its molasses-like contents gather leisurely together into a blob that might someday think about responding to the call of gravity.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Kenreciel replied through a full mouth; he’d taken about six of the hors d’oeuvres, and Gent wondered how he maintained such a trim figure if that was typical of his eating habits. Certainly the motion required for his formations wasn’t exercise enough to keep him that shapely; the one he was setting now didn’t even require both hands. And apparently the words could be spoken around a mass of bread and paste with no detrimental effect to the form.

Gent watched curiously as the glowing image of what looked to be a fish of some kind appeared and then faded around Kenreciel’s hand. The latter then reached out and touched Gent’s cup with a single finger, and under the mercenary’s interested eyes the topmost portion of the drink seemed to uncongeal and expand, rising toward the rim in greater mobility.

“What did you just do?”

“Fluidity form,” Kenreciel answered, as if this explained everything. When Gent frowned at him, he clarified further. “If the drink’s thick like that, it’s easier to store, and the cups can be smaller, and all that.” He waved a hand in a vague gesture that did little to enhance his meaning. “All I have to do is to set a form to make it drinkable, and it saves space.”

“What about people who are not elementists?”

“Everyone here is… or is with one… or a waiter could do it for you…” Kenreciel looked slightly puzzled at the question.

“But if someone who was not an elementist wanted to drink this, say, at home,” Gent pursued impatiently, holding up his glass, “how would they manage it?”

“Oh,” said Kenreciel in a tone of understanding. “You can get it as a regular liquid too.”

It seemed mightily inconvenient to Gent, but he said no more, only downed the accessible drink in the top of his glass. Though this was only about the volume of a standard shot, it made him choke and nearly sway. By its taste, it had a dangerously high alcohol content, and, on top of that, was of a flavor so strong and sweet he might as well indeed have been drinking pure molasses. “God!” he exclaimed when his mouth was capable of it. “Why would you want to get it as regular liquid?” He shoved the glass back onto the floating tray with enough force that it nearly slid off the other side.

Kenreciel gave him a sympathetic, brow-furrowed smile. “You don’t like it? I will punish it for you.” His smile turned into a grin as he began to set another form; this one’s glowing shape surrounding his hand was that of a bulky four-legged creature — a bull, possibly, but Gent wasn’t able to make it out for sure before it faded — and when he touched the cup where it rested on the edge of the tray, the glass shattered.

Although he stepped back in surprise with a wordless exclamation, Gent wasn’t in any danger of flying shards; they’d all adhered to the glutinous drink so the cup had merely collapsed slowly toward the tray and, in the case of the bits near the latter’s edge, the floor. He was compelled to laugh almost against his will at this childish prank. And that reminded him…

“You did not finish telling me why exactly you feel the need to pull this stunt just so you will not be invited to these events in the future.” His anger had been only embers for the last several minutes while he’d been distracted by the refreshments, so his tone was much friendlier than the last time he’d asked.

Kenreciel, however, did not answer, for his attention had turned to what appeared to be a delegation approaching. Nobody besides the servants had yet spoken to them, which struck Gent — now that he thought about it — as a little odd.

He didn’t understand the greeting offered by the tall, richly-dressed person whose footsteps in their direction were dogged by a set of somewhat agitated-looking followers, but he definitely knew the condescending tone of the man and the almost conspiratorial way the followers murmured to each other as they hung back and studied both Gent and Kenreciel with vulture-like eyes. The mercenary hadn’t been aware that politics were involved in this affair, but that aura of complacent, supercilious authority could not be mistaken. And if that was the case, it made the answer that hadn’t yet been provided to his question, the ‘complications’ to which Kenreciel had alluded, a little more understandable.

Making as shallow a bow as could still be considered one, Kenreciel replied stiffly to the greeting. Gent wished he spoke the language… though he could easily see without that ability that Kenreciel was no politician. After several self-satisfied, superior remarks, the newcomer finally turned his attention to Gent. The latter had already (to all appearances) been canvassed by the sycophants, but they were (to all appearances) glad to resume the topic.

Gent’s nervousness — and, consequently, his rage — had in some measure returned, and he felt his face flush with a combination of these emotions as the man caught his hand and bent deeply over it. To Gent’s everlasting chagrin, he brought it to his lips. The mercenary could feel the politician’s breath on his skin as well as the slight moisture of lips and an entirely unnecessary amount of pressure before the ordeal ended. His skin was absolutely crawling.

Although Gent was completely unable to come up with a single word to say, it wasn’t a problem: the man didn’t seem to expect him to. His courteous-but-condescending-sounding greeting was translated somewhat tightly by Kenreciel: “The honorable Higanion, first of Turanieh, elder sage of T’kartay Ytoldeth, welcomes you to the gathering and to Yndimorre, and hopes you are enjoying yourself.”

Forcing a smile (Tulette would be so proud of him), Gent considered how to reply to this. What he eventually chose was, “You know how much I am enjoying myself.”

Kenreciel’s stiff expression cracked a bit into a slight smile and an almost conspiratorial look as he relayed this remark to Higanion — or perhaps told him something else entirely; Gent didn’t really care. The man replied at some length, and then they went back and forth in a series of what seemed to be questions and answers.

Higanion, Gent decided, was placidly entertained by Kenreciel’s antipathy, and was therefore dragging the conversation out much longer than it needed to be. It seemed obvious that this type of exchange was one of the reasons Kenreciel despised these gatherings — and if the borderline rudeness with which he was responding to the politician’s comments wasn’t enough to get him struck from the guest list, it made a bit more sense that he’d want to come up with something really shocking that might. The fact that this had landed Gent here in a dress, however, rendered the mercenary continually unsympathetic.

Presently he began to sense that, had he known the language, he would have been conscious of an increasing number of snubs from Higanion’s entourage: their dialogue grew louder and louder as Kenreciel’s talk with the politician continued, and they drew gradually closer to Gent as their remarks gained pointedness of tone. They broke off abruptly, however, and into motion as the other discussion finally ended. Higanion bowed gracefully to Gent and took his leave, and his hangers-on followed.

An uncomplimentary-sounding string of mutters issued from Kenreciel’s mouth as he stuffed the remaining hors d’oeuvres into it, doubtless to assuage his irritation. It was amusing to see someone whose outward appearance screamed well-bred gentility and elegance as much as did Kenreciel’s behaving so petulantly. Gent wondered if he was cursing.

“What is your language called?” he asked. “Yndish?”

This question seemed to break Kenreciel from his annoyance, which was unfortunate; Gent should have waited a bit longer to ask. “Yndish?” he echoed. “Where on earth did you get that from?” When Gent merely laughed dismissively and shook his head, Kenreciel went on, “No, it’s called Islimme.”

“Your accent is very mild,” the mercenary commented next, though it was more a question than a statement; when hardly anyone else here even spoke Arquan, that Kenreciel spoke it so well seemed somewhat unusual.

The elementist nodded, retrieving his drink from the floating tray and repeating his ‘fluidity form’ in order to sip a layer from the top. “I had a… well, I suppose you might call him a step-father… from Merezio. And nearly all of our servants have always been–” He stopped abruptly and said in a lower and somewhat dissatisfied tone, “Now that we’ve been greeted by the elder sage, anyone else is free to talk to us.” This was evidently in reference to the curvaceous woman who was now approaching them with a smile.

Interestedly, Gent watched not so much the newcomer as the tray that trailed behind her, floating just as theirs was. It had a softly-glowing wake that faded a few inches from its rear edge, doubtless to increase visibility and keep others from inadvertently walking into it.

True to form, the woman didn’t speak a word of Arquan and had apparently come over solely to admire Gent’s dress. Her smile and friendly greeting seemed genuine enough, but on such an errand she must be more annoying than otherwise.

“This is Paniniel, second of Lirette,” Kenreciel introduced; he didn’t seem much more pleased than Gent to be having this conversation. “She thinks your dress is beautiful and elegant and… another positive description that women use about women things, and she simply had to come over and find out whether you made it yourself or bought it somewhere.” Kenreciel’s translation was nearly deadpan, but his tone livened up a good deal as he added, “I’m going to tell her you bought it at the man store where men buy dresses, shall I?”

“You are not,” Gent retorted.

“No,” Kenreciel replied regretfully, “I’m not. You make such a convincing woman, she wouldn’t believe me.”

“Tell her it was a dressmaker in Rambleton Heights,” Gent instructed, at once perturbed and amused.

Kenreciel complied, and listened with evident growing impatience to Paniniel’s reply. Finally he turned back to Gent. “She says she’s some sort of amateur… hobbyist… that is, she makes clothing for her own entertainment, and loves to have foreign… fashions to look at for inspiration, and she wants to know how much you paid for the… well, I barely know the word in my language, do I? The material. The white stuff, I think.”

Gent’s eyes went to the aforementioned material, his thoughts to the court of Princess Hatrinna where such discussions had been common and words like ‘satin’ and ‘gathering’ had been tossed around as if they actually meant something. He couldn’t even begin to recall what this stuff might be called, though he was fairly sure it wasn’t actually ‘white.’ “I assume you do not know the conversion rate anyway,” he said thoughtfully, “so my answer cannot mean much to her. Tell her it was a dren one a yard.”

“I understand dren,” Kenreciel protested in response to Gent’s assessment of his financial understanding. “You’re right, I don’t know the conversion rate, but I know what’s a good deal and what’s not.”

“For cloth?” queried the mercenary skeptically.

“Well, maybe not,” admitted the elementist, and turned back to the woman. Paniniel was airily chatty and overly friendly, and Kenreciel, though not exactly acrimonious, became increasingly and obviously impatient as she kept talking. Evidently she could see this as well as Gent could — better, probably, since she could understand his speech — and eventually took herself off with a polite statement. Again Kenreciel grumbled something unintelligible as he returned to the floating tray and, finding it empty of hors d’oeuvres, looked around with a vague, somewhat lowering expression apparently for a waiter.

“You just missed one,” Gent said in some amusement.

“Let’s move to the next level so we’re out of the way at least of the entry crowd,” Kenreciel said in some annoyance. As they did so — Gent looking behind them more than once to watch their inordinately entertaining tray following — the Yndikette brightened slightly. “Wouldn’t it have been amusing, though? After she came over specifically to talk about your dress, what in the world could she have said if I’d just casually let slip that you’re a man?”

By now Gent’s impression was that Kenreciel would not be very skilled at ‘just casually’ letting anything slip. And he was still angry, mostly on principle, about his current situation. However, he had grown enough accustomed to it that he could allude to it without exploding and admit that, if any other man had been the one in the dress, the situation Kenreciel had described would have been quite amusing.

Before they made it up the stairs to the next tier, they were accosted by not one or even two but three other guests evidently wishing little more than to remind Kenreciel they existed at wearisome length. Whatever he thought of his position, Kenreciel must have some political influence, Gent judged. And these encroachers must already have been more or less used to Kenreciel’s manners, for the latter’s impatience with their conversation didn’t faze them. And none of them were more than perfunctorily polite to Gent. He wondered at this; though he didn’t care enough to be offended, it put his nerves slightly on edge.

Once they had attained a new, if dubious, tranquility beside a sparkling red fountain on an upper tier, they stood silently for several minutes, Gent watching the other guests and Kenreciel — well, Gent wasn’t sure what he was doing, and didn’t much care. The Yndikette’s behavior didn’t seem entirely consistent, and Gent wasn’t in the mood to puzzle throught it. One thing he was fairly certain of, though: they were both counting down the minutes until they could leave this party and end this eminently unpleasant night.

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