Barring some further editing, here is the first chapter in my M/M/F fantasy romance novella Singer in Rhunshan.
Eridan Singer chose music and the love of a half-breed warrior woman over his duties to his dying race. After the spell holding his wife in human form fails forever, Eridan barters for shape-shifting magic of his own, from a tribe of ancient gods. Even if the price is his safety, his soul, and the other half of his heart.
One morning after breakfast, Eridan Singer’s brawny wife groaned, stretched out her back, said “Oh!”, and turned into a female sonnaroi.
Her eyes remained the same deep blue. She loomed the same three feet taller than Eridan. She still stood on two legs, though now a tapering tail counterbalanced her heavy hindquarters, forward-canted body, and longer skull. Her bronze skin was hidden by a white velvet pelt. Her long, straight white hair mingled with a deep ruff protecting her neck and chest. A whisker-fringed ear soared from each side of her domed skull. A few inches above her nostrils, she bore a razor-sharp white horn the length of Eridan’s hand. Her own hands were forepaws now, the thumbs nearly as cleverly set as before, but armed with longer claws.
He still recognized elements of his wife’s face.
She no longer appeared surprised at her transformation.
Eridan blinked at her over his tea. “Sfassa, which Adept have you insulted now?” He anticipated negotiation, bribery or a scathing satire against a hapless sorcerer’s reputation. He’d rescued her nearly as often as she’d saved him.
“None,” she trilled and shook out her white mane. Her voice seemed oddly chorded, as if viols and flutes played behind the words. “My back hurts. I am tired of tottering around without a tail, and being called a hulking giant by your race – and a traitor, by mine. I was born in this shape to the sonnaroi tribe of Braebihar Mountain. And now I must stay in this body until I die.”
He could not meet her eyes, so he looked down. Under the fur, her hard-soled feet were the most different: heels lifted far off the floor, insteps shorter, toes longer and tipped with white talons. The inner toe on each foot had become a curved eight-inch-long sickle, white and glossy as porcelain.
“No wonder you hated shoes,” he murmured. “No wonder you seemed born to use blades.”
“Well, I learned to carry them in my hands,” she said, then moved uneasily on her strong hind legs. Her curving, coiling tail crowded the breakfast nook, brushing against the carved wooden walls with a soft rasp. She’d always been heavy, even for her size. Now she filled the little room like a warm white snowbank.
She smelled exactly the same.
Should he be furious? He wasn’t, even now. But he’d fought so hard to keep her by his side. Separation was untenable. Apart from the lovemaking, how could he ever sing alone again? “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“Between one shape and the next, I am still Sfassa.”
“And I am a Dana Purist of the old line of Roessa.”
“I know.” This time her groan carried affectionate exasperation. “In this shape I followed your caravan for a whole winter, spooking the pack-deer and the dogs. I learned what ‘Purist’ meant, when I saw a Sirr man use it as insult. I learned you would never look at me, if I stayed in my birth shape. So I learned enough magic to walk on a Sirr bare-skin woman’s two thin legs. To wield new blades, because my paws were too clumsy for other tasks. I had to be useful to you somehow. To stay close to you and your music. ”
“Useful?” Eridan’s voice cracked. “I loved you from the moment I heard you singing.”
“Dana-man. Prince of Purists.”
Of the Dana-folk, Eridan’s city of Demuaira was the last stronghold. All others had been destroyed or lost through interbreeding with the native Sirrithani, in the sixty thousand years since the Dana’s broken starships flung them onto this hostile world. Of his city and his royal line, Eridan was the last living pure-blood male.
Before he’d met Sfassa, religion had been habit and crutch, an abstract ordeal to endure out of honor and duty, because everyone else in his family did the same. Giving honor to a dead goddess from another planet. Embracing the duty to maintain isolation and perfection. He’d first studied music to prove to the Sirr that the Dana were still more clever, more holy. More valuable.
He became the Master-Singer, greatest bard of his world, when he set such foolishness aside.
After Sfassa, Eridan no longer even prayed to the lost deities of the Dana. He watched isolation strangle the art and vibrancy leaking in from the Sirr civilizations. As the Master-Singer, he fought it with music in sorties blatant or subtle. But to keep peace in the city he still loved, he obeyed the strongest tenet of that faith.
“Yes. I am bound by the laws of my people. You cannot change back to a barely permitted form. So I must change myself. No god of my ancestors could fault that,” he said.
“Your clan will.”
A red-tiled palace gleamed on the eastern cliff above Demuaira, the City of Bards. Eridan considered seven familiar rooms scaled to his height, a regal suite cleaned often and draped in white cloth, awaiting only his divorce and return. He looked around at the gaudy carved and painted Sirrithani houseboat tied up to his dock. He had not left the lower city in a hundred years. He was three centuries old, still young for a Dana. His songs had already been published and performed across most of the world.
Could he teach front paws to play as cleverly as his fingers? If he gained a voice that sang chords and spanned three or more octaves, he might never use a harp or pipes again.
On the solid deck of his houseboat, Eridan felt like he’d stepped off a cliff. Instead of green river-water below, an abyss. “My clan is the last of the pure-blooded Dana on this world. Their purity has not done them much good.”
How many times had how many Dana reached that breaking point, over the ages? Eridan was only the last of them. But oh, what that meant. It would break the world apart, he thought. If the world knew about it.
The Master-Singer should probably vanish, Eridan decided. The world didn’t need to know he was prepared to turn himself into some – creature – just to be with Sfassa.
He couldn’t summon disgust for his disquieting self-revelation. Sfassa was herself, and still beautiful to his eyes.
“You’ll be a tiny sonnaroi man,” his wife warned, laughter thrumming below her words. “Small as a sexless cub compared to my kin. At best, you’ll be teased.”
Eridan grinned, kneeling beside her. “So? I’ll have a giant beauty to defend me, as always.”
“How will you learn the magic to change?”
“I’ve some ideas. How did you learn?”
“By way of a bargain not open to you, husband.” Sfassa buried her muzzle in his long tan hair. The flat side of her horn slid cool along his pointed ear. She breathed deep of his scent. “Perhaps we were fated for this. Sonnaroi in my birth-speech means ‘singing people’.”
“Oh.” He remembered her clear strong voice rising above the evening clamor of a summer caravan. The shock of rightness that drew him from the Dana wagons. Of perfection attained as he added his own harmony. A tall Sirr maiden and a diminutive Dana bard, they’d each followed the song to the middle of the camp. Stunned for only a moment at the sight of each other, then inseparable.
“I’ll wait for you in Braebihar,” she said now.
“Will you be safe journeying alone?”
“I won’t be alone.”
He sensed a story and turned her head to face him. “Out with it, Sfassa.”
“You may be jealous.”
Eridan gave her a mock glare. “You outweigh me by what, three times, or four? If ever you wanted another man, I could not stand in your way.”
She blinked, the slow, melting look that had made him love her Sirr shape from the first. “From my birth, I was betrothed to a powerful wizard of my people. I refused him after hearing you sing. My mother near disowned me for it. The wizard taught me how to shape-shift.”
“He said he loved me enough to let me be happy. He will know I’ve changed back, and see me safe to Braebihar.”
“And then he will court you. That was part of your bargain, yes?”
“He can try. I have a fine husband already!”