"You want to what??? Change into a woman? Complete with breasts and... ? Biting off a bit more than you can chew, aren't you, my dear?"
"Belle, will you lay off me with your doubts and second-guessing and above all, your damnable nagging and leave me in peace for a change!"
Dressing up as a woman was nothing out of the ordinary for Frank. He had done it often enough. Transvestism was the current fashion in the academic set, and even drastic cross-gender behavior was nothing much out of the ordinary.
Frank had a slim build and was only a couple of inches above average height. With a bit of padding at the chest and hips and application of appropriate emoluments, he could convincingly mimic the appearance of a woman. The difficulty lay in mastering the gestures: walking and talking like a woman, performing common, everyday actions in the style of a woman, acting like a woman, being a woman in all the essential ways but one. And even that one was a surmountable barrier... if he availed himself of certain resources.
The Alumni Association Masquerade Ball was the grand social event of the season at the Highsmith Institute of Applied Thaumaturgy. A successful Ball helped raise sufficient funds to build much-needed lab facilities, pay salary increases for the faculty, and avert a strike by the maintenance staff by paying their salary increases as well.
Assistant Mage Franklin Lewis Wickersham had already been passed over for tenure once, and he couldn't afford another setback. It would mean resigning himself to being a lowly undergrad alchemy instructor for the rest of his professional career. It would mean continuing to cut corners financially and never being able to afford the finer things in life. It would mean putting up with Belle's carping about luchre for the foreseeable future. It would mean the end of all his hopes and dreams for a better life.
Just yesterday, Manfredo Hawkins, head of the Alchemy Department, had approached Frank about the Ball. "Just a thought, old man. If you attended as a... well, as a member of the opposite sex, that might sit well with Edgard. I mean, of course, J. Edgard Hoosier, a high muckamuck with the First Royal Countinghouse, who just happens to be one of our major patrons. Contributed five million last year, he did, and his associates raised an additional ten. It's just that..."
"Just that what, Savant Hawkins?"
"Well, my good fellow, Edgard seems, ah, a bit eccentric in certain of his... preferences. His weakness happens to be men who have crossed the Great Divide and become women. No, no! I'm not speaking of transvestites, transgendrals, or even partial transforms. I mean complete parasexuals. It's the esthetic clash of sensibilities, the conflict between nature-given form and function, the cognitive dissonance that hits one between the eyes when things are not quite as they seem. In short, he's a throwback to the libertines of centuries past, and a randy old goat to boot. Calling him homogay or even bisexual couldn't begin to do him justice. More precise might be 'pansexual' or even 'omnisexual, ' or perhaps just plain omnivorous. No, don't get me wrong. I'm not asking you to have carnal contact with the fellow... necessarily. Just satisfy his appetites to the point that, well, the point that he'll be amenable to our request, our request for increased funding this year."
"You're asking me to... transfeminize myself, then perform acts... intimate acts with this, this Edgard Moneybags fellow? You want me to prostitute myself" just because the school is short of money?
"No, Frank, not just for that... but because you owe me one."
He owed Mannie Hawkins more than one. Much more -- his career, his position at the school, his marriage to Cybele -- his very identity.
Frank had been a menial -- a broom pusher and a window washer -- when Hawkins had intruded into his life, and changed it irrevocably. The peremptory summons to a Savant's office, in fact, to a department head's office, had come as a total surprise. Could he have offended someone? Had he perhaps left the windows streaky in the Alchemy Building? What in the Sixteen Gehennas was this all about?
"How would you like to participate in an experiment, Frank?"
"A what? Surely you jest."
"I'm deadly serious, my good man, and you might want to mind your manners."
"My apologies, sir. Didn't mean to be rude. I know I'm only a clean-up man, but I do take pride in my work."
"Frank, just between the two of us, you strike me as being very intelligent, perhaps too intelligent for your assigned station in life. Well, possibly I can offer you a chance to improve yourself. What would you think of that?"
"Improve myself? That doesn't put the coin of the realm in my pocket. Just how much does this so-called experiment pay?"
"Only a nominal gratuity, unfortunately. Fifty ducats, to be exact. But it will change your life. My sincere pledge on that."
It involved mesmerism, of course. Deep mesmerism. Restructing a person's self-image and belief systems was analogous to doing major chirurgy, but in this instance it was psychic chirurgy. The subject's index of cogitation potential was at the high end of the normal range, so it was only a matter of adding about 30 MEQ-equivalent marks to bring him to the desired level. Certain abilities required enhancement. A newly concocted elixir, Neurpromazine-B, increased the nerve-impulse propagation speed, and as a side-effect, dissolved inhibitions against knowledge acquisition.
Frank lugged the stack of bound volumes into Savant Hawkins's antechamber.
"Heavy going, huh, squire?" the scrivener asked.
"I appreciate your concern, Mistress Amelia, but each of these has opened a new world to me. It's like getting the key to a magical doorway. I feel as though I were a child again, and everything feels new and fresh and waiting to be discovered. Me! This is the fellow who never had a single book in his house. The fellow who spent five hours a day watching the conjure-vision tube. The fellow who sleepwalked through life."
"So now you're the great intellect. My word, I'm impressed." Amelia sniffed. "The Savant will see you now."
"We're at a critical stage in the Pygmalion Project, Frank. You're easily as intelligent as many of the instructors at this university, and if you lack book learning, we're well on our way to remedying that. The question is, what's the next step?"
.... There is more of this story ...