Kevin squirmed uncomfortably in the saddle of the riding mule, trying to get the yards and yards of gauzy, gaudy skirts to spread out properly, grimly trying to ignore the pretty chiming of little silver bells every time he moved.
"Don't squirm, dear," Lydia cooed. "It tears threads."
Kevin glared at her. The warrior was a sugar-sweet confection, her tanned face softened with powder and paint, her lithe, muscular form disguised by a frilly bodice and layer after layer of gauzy skirts in a dozen shades of pink. A silky cloak of dusty rose shot through with gold threads was thrown over the whole thing, her black curls—and Tich'ki—hidden under its cowl. Yes, but at least she's a woman! I feel like an idiot.
What made it worse was that he knew he looked rather alarmingly like a girl in all this frippery: a slightly scrawny one, perhaps, a bit too athletic even for a dancer, but a girl nevertheless. The bardling rubbed a reflexive hand over his chin, not sure whether to be discouraged or glad right now that at almost sixteen he still didn't need to shave very often. Smooth cheeks would help the illusion.
If only the illusion wasn't quite so good!
Eliathanis, riding beside Naitachal, was plainly feeling the same way, sitting his mule in silent misery. Kevin bit back a laugh. What a pretty girl the White Elf made!
Both elves were, of course, slim and beardless as all their kind, and despite Eliathanis' martial calling, their long, silky hair and elegant, fine-boned faces made it quite easy for them to pass as women. Naitachal's dark skin had been lightened to a more nondescript tan with judicious use of powder, making him look more like a half-elven hybrid than a perilous Dark Elf. Unlike the unhappy Eliathanis, he seemed to be having a wonderful time.
After all, Kevin mused, how often does a necromancer get a chance to act silly?
It had been Eliathanis' dancing girls, of course, who had lent them all this gear, with the understanding that it would be left for the dancers to gather up again outside the walls. The dancers, the bardling decided, were definitely getting the better of the deal, winding up with what was left of Lydia's not quite honestly gained coins as well as getting their gear back.
Well, actually, it was Councilman Selden who was paying for the whole thing. In a manner of speaking, anyhow.
Kevin censed suddenly. There to one side stood Empty Eyes, the elven leader of the street gang.
"Gently," Naitachal murmured. "You're a harmless dancing girl, that's all you are." The Dark Elf straightened slightly, startled, then chuckled. "Well now, what do you know?" he continued softly. "Our disguises really do work! Did you feel that slight tingling just now?"
"That dissipated shame of an elf tried casting a Dispel Magic spell on us!"
Naitachal leaned sideways in the saddle to give Empty Eyes a flirtatious wink and a blown kiss—Kevin exploded into laughter, just in time managing to turn it into girlish titterings.
"L-look at his face! He—he—he doesn't know what hit him!"
Naitachal swept back his silky hair with a toss of his head. "Too skinny for my taste!" he declared in a light tenor so unlike his usual baritone that Kevin burst into laughter all over again.
Eliathanis shot the Dark Elf a dour glance. "Stop that! Show some—some self-control!"
Naitachal grinned. "Loosen up, dear! You look ravishing."
"Leave me alone, will you? Or are you really enjoying this?"
The Dark Elf's grin widened. "Of course I am! Come now, cousin-elf, where's the harm in it? It's rather fun to play pretend!"
Eliathanis only growled. Kevin wiped his eyes, trying not to smear his makeup, hearing Tich'ki, there in Lydia's hair, tittering so hard she was having trouble catching her breath.
"Straighten up, dears," Lydia cooed. "Here are the guards. Look pretty, now!"
Kevin tensed all over again, seeing the men's grimfaced competence, the weapons never far from their hands, hearing the guards muttering something about "Selden" and "Those thieves aren't going to get past us." Sure, their disguise had been good enough to fool Empty Eyes, who had probably been drunk or half-drugged anyhow. But these were sharp-eyed professionals. Could it possibly fool them as well?
Apparently it could. "Look at the girl in pink," one said, nudging another. "Bet she'd warm a cold night!"
"Warm it, hell, she'd set it on fire!"
"The one next to her's not bad, either." Mortified, Kevin realized they were discussing him now.
"Awfully stringy," someone muttered.
"But there's something to be said for those acrobatic types!" The guard who'd first spoken leered up at the bardling. "Come on, sweetie, give us a kiss for the road."
Feeling tike a prize idiot, Kevin managed to work his lips into what he hoped was a flirtatious smile. To his horror, the guard reached up, trying to pull his head down. Before the bardling could panic, Naitachal leaned down to whisper conspiratorially:
"You don't want to kiss her."
"Oh, I don't, do I?"
"Heavens, no! The last man she kissed got so hot and worked up he followed her for days. We finally had to throw him in a lake to cool him off. You would not have believed the steam!"
All the guards laughed. "Bet you could raise some steam," one of them shouted.
"Oh, darling, you wouldn't believe what 1 can do!" Naitachal gave them all a dazzling smile—"My, my, my, what handsome fellows you all are! What a shame we have to leave just now." The very essence of a delighted dancing girl, the Dark Elf laughed and simpered and blew kisses at them all—Only Kevin caught the faint hint of contempt flickering in the kohl-rimmed blue eyes. "Now, we really must say good-bye," Naitachal said, pretending to pout—"We have such a long way to go!"
"Stay here, then!"
"Oh, darlings, I'd adore that. But ..." He waved a helpless hand. "What would the troop do without me? They would be simply lost, the poor dears. Ta-ta, darlings!"
Fun was fun, but once they were safely out of sight of the city walls, the party was of one mind, searching until they'd found a small pool screened by a grove of trees. Kevin practically threw himself from his mule and gladly stripped off his girlish finery, scrubbing and scrubbing till he'd washed every last trace of paint and powder from his face.
"Ugh. Can't see how women can stand wearing all that stuff."
"Frankly, neither can I!" Lydia straightened, shaking out her damp black hair and tousling the curls dry with her hands. "I mean, I like looking nice as much as any other woman." She winked at Kevin. "You should see me when I dress up pretty! But all that stuff I was wearing just now made me feel like I was carrying a prison around with me!"
In the middle of strapping on her sword, she paused, looking out over the lake, eyebrows raised. "My, isn't that a pleasant sight!"
Naitachal, some distance away, had stripped to the waist to wash off the last of the disguising powder. His body was inhumanly slim and graceful but undeniably male, smooth muscles rippling and dark skin gleaming with every move. Realizing the others were watching him, he disappeared into the bushes, emerging shrouded once more in his black cloak. And now every trace of frivolity was gone.
It's almost as though he was drunk before, and now he's sober again, Kevin thought.
Maybe that wasn't so bizarre an idea. After all, for a Dark Elf, a necromancer used to a grim world of sorcery and death, being suddenly thrown into the middle of so much vibrant, busy life really must have been intoxicating!
As the bardling retrieved his lute from the pile of dancing girls' gear, he heard Naitachal mutter:
"Powers, I'm glad that's over."
"I thought you were enjoying yourself." Eliathanis' voice was cool with disapproval.
Naitachal glanced sharply at the White Elf—"Up to a point. One moment more, though, and I think I would have thrown up."
"From fright?" Kevin asked in disbelief.
"Hardly!" The Dark Elf gave him a fierce little grin. "From a surfeit of sugar!"