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Dragon Thief

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Dragon Thief

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Author: S. Andrew Swann
Publisher: DAW Books, 2015
Series: Dragon: Book 2

1. Dragon Princess
2. Dragon Thief
3. Dragon Wizard

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

All Frank Blackthorne wants is a little vacation from being the princess. The involuntary swap in gender has been bad enough, but being a figurehead for the Royal Court of Lendowyn is becoming downright oppressive. In a fit of drunken self-pity, Frank turns to using a cursed artifact, hoping to become a man again, if only temporarily.

The good news is he becomes a man again, a kingdom away from Lendowyn court.

The bad news is the man whose body he now occupies belongs to a notorious thief wanted by every kingdom in the known world. A man of ruthless ambition who has left unimaginable destruction in his wake. A man who Frank has inadvertently deposited in the middle of the Lendowyn court in the body of the princess.

Now he's stranded, his only allies a group of outcast teenage girls convinced that he's the legendary master thief Snake. He must get back to Lendowyn--avoiding the armies of thieves, mercenaries, and assassins after the bounty on his new head.


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

My name is Frank Blackthorne, and I'm going to tell you a story.

Bear in mind that I'm making the radical assumption that you, my audience, have been paying attention. For those of you who are late to my story, here is what you need to know:

I began as a semi-accomplished thief. An unscrupulous wizard allegedly working for the Royal Court of Lendowyn conned me into attempting to rescue the king's daughter from a dragon.

Any sane individual could tell from that premise that all was not as it seemed, and they would be correct. The "rescue" was an intricate plot by said wizard to grab hold of a peerage by winning the princess's hand in marriage.

Any sane individual could tell you that such plans are likely to go awry, and, again, they would be correct. It went wrong in a spectacular fashion, resulting in a cascade of mishaps both magical and mundane.

Those mishaps left me in the body of Princess Lucille, said princess in the dragon's body as my prince and husband, the aforesaid dragon in the wizard's body in an elfland jail for outstanding gambling debts, and the aptly named wizard, Elhared the Unwise, in my body and quite dead, leaving us no way to untangle the mess.

- • -

The story at hand begins midwinter, five months after I had been princessified, inside a tavern about five miles from the capital of the Duchy of Dermonica, in a small town just on the right side of the border with the Kingdom of Grünwald.

I huddled alone at a table in a shadowed corner of the common room. I warmed myself with a hot tankard of spiced cider, keeping watch on the other patrons and the door, a black cloak draped over my elven leather armor, looking as little like a princess as I could without being obvious about it.

As to why I was in Dermonica: Now that the princess was no longer available for marriage, her main substantive role that did not seem to involve painfully elaborate dresses and painfully tedious royal festivities was diplomacy.

In theory it should have been the one part of the job that exercised my own aptitudes to any degree--specifically aptitudes in duplicity and concocting elaborate straight-faced lies. Generally I would have preferred sneaking around and lifting people's purses, but I like to think of myself as adaptable.

The diplomatic mission from Lendowyn was officially here in Dermonica to open talks of trade with the duke. No small task, since for half a century all that had crossed the border between Dermonica and Lendowyn had been the occasional insult.

When I had agreed to join the mission with the prince--the Dragon Lucille--I think I had a more optimistic view of my role. I wasn't here to negotiate anything. That's what the ministers and the prince were for. I was here to give an additional royal imprimatur to the proceedings, nod my head, and approve of the negotiations conducted around me.

Basically I was a prop, and it was even more boring than holding court at Lendowyn.

The bright side was that, after months sealed within the royal cocoon in Lendowyn, I could at least see new people--and once I used my professional skills to slip away unseen from the diplomatic mission--those people weren't the so-called aristocracy or their minions.

That was the reason I sat in this tavern five miles away from where I was supposed to be, and a mile from somewhere I should never go again unless I wanted to start a war. I needed a break from my new life.

The Dragon Lucille, from all appearances, had taken the transition from princess to scary fire-breathing lizard rather well. Despite some tears at the start, she now seemed to revel enthusiastically in her draconic glory. At times I felt maybe a little too enthusiastically--which might have been the one point of agreement on anything between me and her father, King Alfred the Strident.

By contrast, becoming Princess Frank, despite undergoing what would objectively seem a much less radical transformation, left me feeling as if I was having a much tougher go of it. After the initial chaos of our transformation--facing down Queen Fiona of Grünwald and the Dark Lord Nâtlac himself--the lack of dire threats to me or the people around me left me too much time to ponder my own discomfort.

Discomfort that, five times now, had a habit of becoming distressingly physical.

My first experience with cyclic feminine distress had been a few days after the wedding. I had initially panicked and thought I had been suffering from delayed internal injuries caused during the battle with the late Queen Fiona's minions. Or perhaps I had fallen prey to some evil disease brought on by contact with the Dark Lord Nâtlac, and the illness was finally rotting away my insides.

Political marriage of convenience or not, I didn't think my husband's laughter was an appropriate reaction to my screams of horror. It certainly didn't make me feel any better.

That incident, and the four repetitions since, had given me an appreciation for every woman I had ever run across who had appeared happy, calm, or relatively sane. It was also a literal gut-level reminder of what I had lost.

One thing I had lost, in particular.

Whatever my outward appearance or internal symptoms; I was still me, and there are some itches I needed to scratch, at least occasionally, or I started to get cranky. I couldn't turn to Lucille, my husband and one friend in the royal court, because-- even had my transformation brought with it a preference for male companionship--her being a dragon made anything of the sort physically impossible. And creepy.

And, while I could probably find any number of retainers and hangers-on in the Lendowyn court who would willingly help the princess out with such an issue, that itself was part of the problem. Everyone involved in the aristocracy at any level spent every waking moment engaged in endless game-playing and constant jockeying for power. The constant conspiratorial atmosphere made the environment around Lendowyn Castle stifling. For me, at least, it killed the mood.

But things had gotten to the point that it forced me to engage in the same kind of elaborate plotting that I found so unappealing in noble circles. In defense of that particular hypocrisy, my goals were a bit more modest than was typical for such royal shenanigans.

So here I was, on my own personal covert mission.

I stared into my half-empty tankard and sighed. I glanced around the tavern at the few retainers who stood silent guard at opposite corners of the common room. They were part of a cadre that was fiercely loyal to the princess--at least to the role she had taken after I had defeated the late Queen Fiona of Grünwald. I found it depressing that I wasn't even able to conduct my own skulduggery on my own.

But I wasn't crazy. Even if I didn't look the role of the princess at the moment, I still was the princess, with all the baggage that entailed. In this world it was risky enough just being female and attractive without an escort. Add in the possibility of royal intrigue and...

I felt nostalgic for the days when all I had to worry about was the local Thieves' Guild threatening to break my fingers.

At least I could afford better booze now.

Out the windows the evening had gone full black, and I couldn't see a thing beyond the lamplight in the common room. Conversation swirled around me; the room was packed with travelers, mostly tradesmen and merchants. Out of habit I found myself sizing up the patrons, judging the weight of their pouches and the state of their inebriation.

If I wanted, I could probably paste on a smile, lower the hood of my cloak, and slip up to the table with the trio of Delmarkian tradesmen who were busy committing drunken crimes against the folk songs of their homeland. You couldn't ask for better targets for a pickpocket's skill, and given my current status as a member of the fair sex, I suspected I could slip my hands inside a belt or two without any objection.

I stared at the fat drunken northerners and came up with a few objections of my own and quickly returned to my cider, shuddering a little internally.

It wasn't that I hadn't been trying to adapt to my current gender, but the fact was my entire life up to a few months ago trumped any arguments nature and this body could come up with. It didn't help that, so far, every male whom I'd run into who happened to be on the same side of that argument as nature and my body hadn't been that concerned about my consent. The last person who had tried to consummate that sort of impulse had ended up with a lethal rearrangement of his neck bones.

It had been unintentional on my part, but over time I'd found my guilt fading over the incident.

I looked at the singing tradesmen again.

It was getting harder and harder to imagine picking up the pieces of my old life, and dealing with my new one hadn't become any easier. If I was honest with myself--and there's a first time for everything--my little covert activity away from the diplomatic mission stank of desperation. This was the fifth day in a row I had slipped away. I only had a couple of days more.

In the end, royal conspiracies may just have been more than I was cut out for. It was sort of a shame. Given my position in the royal household--even one as impoverished as that of Lendowyn--a proper thieving mindset should be able to leverage that into ill-gotten riches beyond the wildest imaginings of pre-princess Frank Blackthorne. In my darkest moments, I had begun suspecting that I had lost more than the obvious in the transition.

I drained the cold dregs of cider, dropped the tankard on the table, and got up to leave.

"I guess it's not going to happen," I whispered, resigned to another night alone.

I was about to vacate the table and the suddenly depressing venue, when the door opened letting in a swirl of snow and a fur-draped mountain carved into the vague likeness of a barbarian warrior decked out in the unmistakable spiked black armor of Grünwald.

Actually, referring to him as a warrior was being too generous. I hadn't known Brock to show competence at any martial skill aside from enthusiasm. Fortunately for him, his skill was rarely tested since, being an intimidating mass with a girth almost equal to his considerable height, potential foes mostly found reason to advance directly away from him. Despite all that, he'd taken a dagger in his substantial gut for Lucille, so his heart was in the right place.

I had already convinced myself that my covert mission had been a failure, and for a moment, seeing Brock returned, standing alone in the doorway, confirmed my fears. Then a smaller figure stepped out from behind him. The new person wore a fur-lined cloak and lowered the hood as she stepped into the tavern. As she shook the snow off herself, I couldn't stop myself from grinning.

She had come.

The woman underneath the cloak had the same blonde hair and blue eyes as the Princess Lucille had bequeathed to me. Beyond that, she had slightly more generous height and more than slightly more generous curves than I had at the moment. Her face was a bit more angelic than I remembered, though that was discounting the rather worldly half-smile that crossed her lips as she caught my eye.

Her name was Evelyn, and she was a tavern wench from an inn named The Three-Legged Boar located in the city of Brightwood, the capital of Grünwald. The last time I had seen her I had been in need of a tavern wench's outfit--long story--so Brock and I had stripped her, tied her up, and had shoved her in an empty beer barrel. It was consensual, and an exchange of money was involved, but I had still been worried that the experience might have soured her on further contact with me.

On the off chance it hadn't, I had sent Brock to invite her for a second meeting. Brock, specifically because he was known to Evelyn, could credibly say he was running an errand for me, and could cross the border into Grünwald without risking a war.

Evelyn walked over to my empty table and sat down across from me. "It is you," she said. "I thought you had forgotten about me."

Brock watched her come over, shook his head, and walked off to another table.

"I haven't forgotten," I told her, "though I do have an admission."

"Yes?"

"I didn't send Brock across the border so I could return your clothes."

She had an honest laugh. She touched the back of my hand and said, "I know."

If I had needed any confirmation that inhabiting the body of a virginal princess hadn't changed my preference for intimate company, her touch confirmed it. Different places got warm now, but they meant the same thing.

She leaned forward and whispered, "So you're a princess?"

I sighed and nodded.

"Why me?" she asked.

"Pardon?"

"Why bring me here? I'm sure that there are plenty of people, men and women, would be happy to... do your bidding?" She didn't look into my eyes as she talked, and she traced lazy circles across the back of my hand with her finger.

I thought of politics, court intrigue, and the fact that at Lendowyn Castle my every move was watched. "Because you were honestly interested in me."

She raised her head just enough so that she was looking me in the eye.

I shrugged. "We may not have met under the best circumstances, but everyone else lately has been more interested in me as a princess or as a potential victim."

"I'm sure some of that is because you're a very attractive young woman."

"Potential victim," I repeated.

"That isn't always a bad thing," she said. "Seems to have worked out for me."

"Not the same thing. You were more accomplice than victim."

"You still tied me up." I would have expected a bit more anger from a woman saying that. Instead I got that half-smile and her face half turned from mine. Suddenly I began feeling like an awkward teenager who had never tried to pick up a woman in a bar before.

"I'm sorry about--"

"Shh--" She leaned over and kissed my cheek. She whispered in my ear, "Accomplice, right?" I felt heat on my face and blamed Lucille's body. Evelyn squeezed my hand as she sat back down and I felt an uncharacteristic surge of honesty.

"Before we go on," I said, "there are a few more things I should tell you--"

"Like why you call yourself Frank?"

I opened my mouth. Closed it. Opened it again.

"I'm okay with it," she said.

"Brock?" I asked, trying to regroup.

"He didn't say anything." She leaned over and quietly said, "But it's not really a secret. Royal weddings are general topics of rumor and conversation even when they aren't as strange as yours. You're famous and..." Her eyes dropped and she began tracing patterns on my hand again.

After a moment I realized she was blushing herself.

"And?" I prompted.

She sucked in a breath. "What's it like to be the Dark Queen?"

CHAPTER 2

I shouldn't have been surprised. It wouldn't be hard to connect my last two trips to Grünwald. Like she said, it was no secret.

However, I would have expected my checkered past to be at least a little bit off-putting.

"Yeah, that..." I said, not quite sure what she wanted. "Queen Fiona didn't leave me much choice."

"I heard stories about how she crumbled before you."

Torn apart by an angry Lord of Darkness was more like it.

"Did you make her beg?" she asked.

"Did I..." I trailed off as a few details about Evelyn began to sink in. First, she hadn't actually shown any attraction to me until after I had threatened her. Sure she'd taken my bribe, but I had still ordered her to strip, help me dress, and then I had tied her up and left her in an empty beer barrel. For most people I knew, that would have been an ordeal.

I began to realize that, for Evelyn, it had been foreplay.

I watched her expression as she talked of my overcoming the prior monarch of Grünwald, the Dark Queen of Nâtlac--especially the way she bit her lip.

The good news was, Evelyn found my exploits versus the last Dark Queen of Nâtlac exciting in the same, somewhat disturbing, manner as she had been excited by our last meeting when I'd basically kidnapped her, stripped her, and tied her up....

I guess that also counted as the bad news.

"Can we talk about something else?" I asked quietly.

"Of course, mistress," she said, confirming my growing suspicions.

I felt even more the awkward teenager.

Not that I begrudged Evelyn's idea of fun. But the idea of playing mistress to fulfill whatever fantasy role she had for the Dark Queen came a little too close to the reasons I was trying to avoid an assignation with someone from within the Lendowyn court.

I think, when it comes to romantic encounters, I'm more egalitarian.

But, after the effort I had put into bringing her here, and the faith she'd shown by following Brock here, I decided that I owed it to both of us to give it a try.

- • -

I took Evelyn up to the private room I'd been renting with my meager royal stipend for the past five days. I felt even more like some teenager on the cusp of losing his virginity. Even if it was, given my new body, the literal truth, it wasn't how I'd expected to feel.

In retrospect, it made sense for a number of reasons. I was still uncomfortable in my new skin, even after a few months with it. I also hadn't been intimate with anyone for longer than that. And, while I had plenty of experience with women, none was as a woman, meaning my relevant prior sexual experience was absolutely nil.

So there were reasons to be nervous, even with a willing, enthusiastic partner.

But there's also this running theme with my life: Whenever I am afraid things will go wrong, they never do so in exactly the way I expect them to.

However, for a brief shiny moment I did forget my apprehension. Once I closed the door and we faced each other in private, she asked, with her head bowed and hands behind her back, "May I kiss my mistress?"

"Well that was the idea behind bringing you here."

That, at least, was something that hadn't changed with my new body. Even if our embrace had a few more curves involved than I was used to. I held on to her with all the desperation of the past few months.

It went downhill from there.

Somehow I had come to a point in my life where I had a woman ready, willing, and able to join me in activities that I had only been able to imagine for the past six months. I had her on her knees in front of me, calling me mistress. She looked up at me with a gaze that was equal parts lust, submission, and worship and asked, "What does my mistress want?"

And I drew a blank.

I had no idea what to tell her. It wasn't just my inexperience with any sort of female-only relationship. I had spent years as a guy. Such things had crossed my mind.

But the impact of this woman asking me to command her like a slave had managed, somehow, to completely wipe away any thoughts of an erotic nature from my mind.

"Mistress?"

I stood there, motionless. Inside I began to panic, and I didn't even know why.

"Is there something wrong?" To my relief, her voice lost its servile character and took on a note of actual concern. My panic started fading.

"Frank?"

I sighed. I guess I wasn't going to do this. "Evelyn," I said, "I don't think--"

Fortunately for my budding reputation as a dominatrix, I was interrupted by a scream coming from outside.

While screams of terror were never a good sign, I ran to the window with the naïve belief that, whatever the emergency was, it had to be less awkward than my standoff with Evelyn. I opened the shutters to look out at what was terrorizing the townsfolk outside.

"Oh crap."

It never goes wrong in quite the way I expect.

"What's going on?" Evelyn called after me.

I turned around and ran for the door. "I have to go out there before things get out of hand."

As I went out the door, I heard her call after me, "Before what gets out of hand?"

- • -

I ran through the tavern, past a crowd of people who had pushed their way in from outside. My own personal guards, including Brock, were already outside to meet the threat. I had a brief impulse to find a rear door to the place, slip away from the royal guard, and the court, and what waited outside.

The impulse was brief enough that I didn't even slow down.

Outside, waiting for me, was the worst-case scenario for any woman attempting to engage in any extramarital dalliance.

My husband.

It didn't help matters that my spouse was a fifty-foot-long fire-breathing lizard. Apparently my efforts at stealth didn't matter all that much once someone realized that I had gone missing.

"Frank!" the dragon greeted me as I ran out the door. Lucille filled the crossroads in front of the tavern, and a circle of people, mostly my escort, Brock, and elements of the city watch, had formed a perimeter around her at about forty paces. Her wings spread out to block most of the sky.

"Lucille," I answered. It was hard to keep the resignation out of my voice. It had sunk in that there wasn't any way out of the box I found myself in.

I stopped advancing, because something felt wrong. I could see it in my own retainers, who knew her as well as I did, and they seemed as frightened as the city watch.

"Lucille?" I repeated, really looking at her now. I had become somewhat accustomed to her as a dragon, enough so that I really didn't think of the implications of it anymore. However, I was good at reading her expressions by now, despite the lack of mobility in her reptilian face.

This expression I hadn't seen before.

I thought I had seen her angry. I was wrong. She stood on her haunches, looming over me, neck twisted in an arc that pointed her face down at me. Every muscle under her scaly skin was drawn so tight she could have been carved out of obsidian. Smoke curled from her nostrils, and behind her snarl I could see the faint glow of barely suppressed fire. Her huge golden eyes were narrowed until they were little more than angry slits in her face.

"What in the seven hells do you think you were doing?" Her words slammed down in a gust of choking brimstone hot enough to melt the snow at my feet.

I heard a scream from behind me, and I realized that Evelyn had followed me out of the tavern. I glanced behind me at her; she was staring up at Lucille and fumbling at the doorway that had slammed shut behind her. Whoever was on the other side of that door wasn't opening it.

I placed my hand on my temple. I had misjudged how badly Lucille would react. "I'm sorry," I said, hoping to calm things down a bit. "I wanted--"

"You wanted? You're sorry!?" She bellowed that last word up into the sky. A good thing since it came out in a ball of flame so intense that it was briefly dawn in front of the tavern. The city guard dropped their halberds and ran, and to all appearances my personal guard wanted to join them. Evelyn dove to the ground and cowered behind me.

"Father has been working toward these negotiations for a decade! You risk disrupting them for what? For what!? What are you doing that's more important than years of diplomatic work and peace between our neighbors? What's worth putting the princess and heir to the Lendowyn throne at risk?"

While she had a point, I couldn't help thinking that she was being more disruptive than anything I'd been doing in the privacy of my rented room. I stepped forward and raised my hands. This needed to stop before it went too far.

"Lucille, you're right. Just calm down and we--"

"Don't patronize me! Don't tell me to calm down! It's bad enough you're willing to upend talks with Dermonica. What's worse is you did it just to degrade yourself."

I opened my mouth, but what she said sunk in and left me in a brief stunned silence.

Wait a minute.

"You're part of the noble house of Lendowyn. You have responsibilities, duties. You need to behave in a manner appropriate to your station."

Is that what this is about? I stared at her in disbelief. Of all the things to be angry with me about, she picked this one? I thought she knew me...

"I not only find out you're missing, but I find out that you abandoned your duties to have a cheap dalliance with a common whore!"

"That's enough!" I shouted up at her in a voice that hadn't been as commanding since I shouted down the late Queen Fiona.

Her jaws snapped shut with an audible clack, and her head withdrew, eyes widening. Lucille wasn't the only one in shock from my outburst; the circle of guards all turned their attention to me.

I pointed up at Lucille. "Don't talk to me about any so-called 'nobility.' You're the only one of the bunch who's worth more than a bucket of warm ogre spit--"

"Frank--"

"And this woman has a name! It's Evelyn, and I'll take one of her over a dozen self-important lords from the noble houses of any kingdom you want to mention. You might forget that she's not the only one here who didn't have the good sense to properly pick the set of ancestors who were more adept at beating people into submission."

"Please--" The anger seemed to leak away from the dragon's voice. That was okay. I now had more than enough for both of us.

"Your noble 'obligations' are just a rationalization to convince yourself that you really are better than everyone else, and a desperate attempt to convince everyone else that they actually need to be subservient. Gods help us all if all the farmers in the land suddenly realized that they can survive a lot longer without the lords than the lords can survive without them."

"This isn't the place."

"No, of course not. Can't say such things before the unwashed masses." It was probably a bad idea to argue with her, though not for exactly the same reasons it was typically a bad reason to argue with a dragon. Exactly why it was didn't sink in. Not then.

"Why are you doing this to me? In my body?"

"Your body?" I screamed at her. "Your body?!"

"Please, Frank--" She must have heard what was coming in my voice, because she sounded more tentative than a dragon had a right to be.

"You lost your claim on this body when you decided you wanted to be Crown Prince Dragon. Your body? How much time have you and your dad spent trying to get it back? What kind of nerve do you have to claim control of something you don't even want?"

"I didn't mean--"

"And after what I've done for you, twisted my entire existence out of shape... this is the thanks I get? What kind of ungrateful bitch are you? Evelyn's beneath your station? Well so am I!"

I don't know where the line was, but somewhere along the way I had crossed it, kept going, and never looked back. Everyone fell silent, including her.

After a long moment she said, "We should go."

Maybe I should, I thought.

CHAPTER 3

We made it through the last couple of days in Dermonica and the journey back to Lendowyn without more than three words passing between us. I did everything I could to keep it that way, remaining sequestered alone in my rooms whenever my so-called "duty" didn't absolutely require my presence as window dressing. Lucille had been staying away from the talks themselves, for obvious reasons--her presence would have been distracting.

Still, I kept to myself even more than usual. Better to feel sorry for myself.

I did see her on our return trip. The draconic escort was a bit of pointless diplomatic swagger, the kind engaged in by kingdoms that had little to swagger about. I guess it was impressive to anyone who didn't realize that Lendowyn had no money and the dragon represented about half the kingdom's military prowess. Thus the importance of a peace treaty with neighboring Dermonica.

Before she took off to fly alongside the caravan home, she did catch my eye. I doubt anyone else noticed, but, as I said, I'd been around Lucille enough to understand a dragon's facial expression. I could tell that as she looked in my direction she was on the verge of tears.

It was a measure of how angry I was that I didn't walk over and try to smooth things over. I was at the point where I was mad at her for being upset. Why should she be? She had gotten what she wanted. She had become the Crown Prince of Lendowyn, and in a weird patriotic fervor, had become the most popular member of the royal court. And unlike my current experience as princess, she had some actual role in the running of the kingdom.

I was not about to feel sorry for her, and an apology was out of the question.

It was a long trip back to Lendowyn Castle, and as soon as I could free myself from the obligatory return ceremony I retired to my own private chambers and locked myself in.

After a side trip to the royal wine cellar.

I knew from experience that, in my case at least, alcohol and self-pity rarely mixed well. I think I convinced myself that I was more angry than anything else. When I leaned against the door and took a swig from some local vintage, I told myself that my vision was blurred by tears of rage.

I took another swig and thought I should have just left with Evelyn. I'd probably added a whole new layer to her fantasy mistress when I managed to argue a dragon into submission.

"Mistress," I whispered, half curse and half drunken giggle.

The "drunken" part of that didn't sink in until I took a half step, half stumble toward the bed and started toppling. Somehow I managed a pirouette that ended with my back flat on the bed, and more important, bottle high and unspilled.

"Mistress," I muttered again, with an unprincesslike snort.

I hadn't felt more powerless in my entire life. And, in addition to losing everything else, I had lost my tolerance for alcohol. That started me laughing and gasping, desperately trying to keep my bottle upright.

I'd figured out a while ago that I had become a lightweight when I inherited the princess's body, but I didn't remember three sips of wine putting me over the edge this quickly. I narrowed my eyes at the bottle, convinced there was something wrong.

There was. The bottle was half gone.

"I guess that's more'n three sips," I said, and started giggling. "There you go, Lucille, I'm acting beneath your station again."

I sat up and swayed a bit, lifting the bottle to the window in a toast. "Here's to the common folk."

I took another swig, downing a third of what was left.

"That's me," I whispered to the bottle. "Common. Nothing special about old Frank Blackthorne. Wasn't even the greatest thief." My hand tightened on the bottle and I watched my hand--the princess's hand--tremble as the knuckles whitened.

"But--" I forced out through clenched teeth.

"But that was who I am!" I threw the bottle. And despite the princess's lack of upper body strength it flew like a missile at the window, slamming into the stone peak above it, sending red liquid and bits of bottle back into the room as if a small goblin with glass bones and a drinking problem had decided to climb into my room and explode.

"I want my life back!" I yelled at the remains of the wine goblin. I grabbed the neck of my dress and tore at it in frustration. "I don't want this! I want my own life! Something! A part of it back! Anything!"

I tore at my neckline, but, as I said, the princess didn't have the greatest upper body strength, and while I wanted to tear through chemise, bodice, and dress in a drunken rage, I just managed to strain my arm and give myself a friction burn on my neck.

The princess's neck. "Got to remember, like she said, it's her body."

A bad idea crossed my mind, and it stuck there. Holding my neck, angry, drunk, and self-pitying, I was ready to contemplate something I'd been avoiding since my "marriage" to Lucille. I stood up, steadier than I had a right to be, and walked toward the wardrobe that dominated one side of my room.

"Yeah, shouldn't even be thinking this," I slurred to myself.

I still opened the wardrobe. Inside, on the topmost shelf, it was still right where I had left it shortly after my wedding ceremony. I had done my best to forget it, because when I'm sober I do try to make a pretense of having good sense.

I pulled out a small box decorated in ornate carvings that were somewhat disturbing if examined too closely. I walked back to the bed with it.

I sat on the edge of the bed, ignoring the spots of wine and pieces of glass. I traced the edges of the box with my fingertips, telling myself that it didn't look that bad. Not for a wedding present delivered by the Dark Lord Nâtlac himself.

I opened the box. Inside was a dark gem cut into facets that appeared to shift position when you didn't look directly at them, mounted in a twisted silver setting that could have represented vines, or tentacles, or veins wrapping a shrunken black heart. It was pretty in a somewhat mind-twisting way that made your eyes hurt after a while.

I still vividly remembered how the Dark Lord had appeared, wrapped in the voices of a million tortured souls, to present it to me. According to the Dark Lord Nâtlac, this evil-looking pendant could return me to a male form, if only temporarily. I had no idea what it cost, what I would sacrifice, as the Dark Lord had made his exit before I could ask any of the obvious questions.

In my inebriated state, it still seemed a good deal. I wanted nothing more than to stop being a princess right now.

If you're wondering why I hadn't used it before now, you probably should review the part where I said that this necklace was a personal gift from the Dark Lord Nâtlac.

If you're wondering why I was seriously contemplating it now, I should point out that the last time I was this drunk, desperate, and sorry for myself, I was picked up by an evil wizard in a dockside tavern and agreed to rescue a princess from a dragon.

Drunk me came up with a foolproof plan. If the necklace did anything really objectionable, I could just take it off again. Also, how bad could it be if the effects were only temporary?

Drunk me couldn't muster any further objections, so I put the thing around my neck.

CHAPTER 4

Drunk me must have realized that he'd made a serious mistake, because he ran away immediately, leaving behind an angry invisible ogre to squeeze my brain in time to my pulse. The headache, nausea, and disorientation crashed over me like a devotion to the god of all hangovers. In a lifetime of unpleasant experiences with alcohol I had never produced a hangover this quickly or this severe.

Which isn't to say I'd never felt like this before.

The sudden abrupt change in every sensation I felt in my body, and the dizzying wave of disorientation that followed in their wake only increased the sense that I had been through this all before. I blinked my eyes and managed to make out a starry night sky as my blurred vision cleared. A cold night wind bit into my face.

"Oh Cra--" I began to mutter. I was interrupted when a weasel of a man strung together by leather, muscle, and hate decided to block the swing of his truncheon with my left kidney.

I decided that the proper response to that was to vomit up a meal I never remembered having. Weasel dodged easily to the side and I realized that I looked down on the top of his head. The vantage from on high sent my brain spinning. I would have collapsed to the ground if a pair of goons weren't holding my upper arms in a painful grip above the vomit-stained cobblestones of a back alley somewhere. I clenched my teeth to avoid heaving again.

Weasel spoke to me. At least I think I was the one being addressed. "Thought you'd put up more of a fight, Snake."

I didn't know who this guy was, and I had no idea who Snake was. All I was aware of was the fact that his voice ground broken shards of glass into my throbbing brain.

"How did you get this reputation? Look like just another punk in over his head, don't you?"

I kicked him just to get the noise to stop. I had aimed higher, but I hit him right under the kneecap. The guy gasped and twisted to the side, his other foot sliding on the slick of vomit. The goons holding me pulled me up and back away from Weasel, and the sudden motion ignited a new flare of agony inside my skull.

I kicked out again, this time at the goon to my right. I didn't expect much from the attack, I'd never been a brawler, even before I became a petite young girl. For me, a fight involved flailing around hoping to hit something vital.

Pain and panic must have fueled me because my boot--I'm wearing boots?--slammed into the goon's knee, bending it sideways with a soft crunch that I heard as well as felt through my leg. He lost his grip on me as that leg collapsed under his weight. He fell onto Weasel as the latter was trying to get back up, dropping him back onto the filthy cobbles.

The other goon still had hold of me and swung me so my back slammed into a wall. I gasped from another wave of shuddering pain that made my vision black out for a moment. I blinked in time to see three blurry fists descending on my head like a trio of falling trees. I half ducked, half slid, down the wall away from the blows. The goon still held my arm, so I only dropped about a foot. That was enough to take my throbbing head out of the path. I felt a single fist--still attached to a blurry set of goon triplets--brush the top of my head and crunch violently into the wall behind me. All three goons roared like a bull with his testicles caught in a thresher.

I threw the fist on my free arm toward the center goon, again to make the painful noises stop. I aimed at the face, but the goon's height and my position crouched against the wall meant I hit him low, in the throat. That still had the desired effect, shutting all three goons up. It also loosed the grip they had on my arm.

I pushed myself up from the wall, and stumble-ran out of the alley into an unfamiliar city.

- • -

I don't know how long I dodged through back alleys, but by the time my head cleared I realized I had lost Weasel and the goons. I also realized I was no longer Princess Frank...

Actually, I had known that as soon as the supernatural hangover had hit me. It had been exactly the same as the last time I had switched bodies, when I had become the princess in the first place.

Now, with my head clear and my pursuers nowhere in sight, it was the first time I had a chance to clearly think about it. Once I did think about it, I had to stop because suddenly I realized how much taller I was. It had taken some getting used to being the princess, being short and having everything in the world seem to grow in comparison. This was more disorientating. I looked down and felt a surge of vertigo staring down from a height about a foot above where I was used to. Every step my throbbing brain told me I was in danger of toppling over.

I stopped and leaned against a building, closing my eyes. I unconsciously reached up between my now nonexistent breasts for the necklace.

Nothing was there.

I opened my eyes and confirmed that the Dark Lord's wedding present was nowhere to be seen.

"Crap." My unfamiliar voice came out in a puff of fog.

The fullish moon stared back down at me. I repeated myself.

"Crap."

Of course it made sense now that I wasn't drunk off my ass. The enchanted necklace came from the Dark Lord Nâtlac, and the demon-god bastard dealt with souls as a specialty. There was a pretty good chance that he was responsible for the spell that originally displaced me in the princess's body in the first place. I didn't even need to imagine any particular malice on his part--and this was a deity who was made of malice and inconvenient suffering. If Nâtlac just wanted to give me the opportunity to be male again out of whatever goodness existed in his nonexistent heart, would he give me something that would magically transform the princess's body into a guy? Or would he give me something that just took me out of the princess and dropped me into some random victim?

The answer to that was distressingly clear to me now that I wasn't under the influence of two-thirds of a bottle of bad wine.

This goes on the list of my less intelligent decisions.

At least my demonic benefactor had made a point of telling me that the effects of the enchantment would be temporary.

I spent a moment feeling sympathy for the prior occupant of this body. He had probably just suffered a wrenching transition back into the princess's body back in Lendowyn. I can only imagine what the aftereffects must have felt like when experienced in a body already saturated with alcohol.

I shuddered a bit.

But, now that I thought about it, I probably did the guy a favor. After all, he had been on the verge of being beaten to a pulp, and now he could be sick in the privacy of the princess's chambers, complete with featherbed. He may have gotten the good end of the deal. When things wore off and we switched back, he would be safely away from Weasel and company.

And, now that my head was clear, it sank in.

I was a man again.

I patted down my clothes, feeling my new body in near disbelief. I didn't seem any older than I had been before I'd been princessified, and if anything I felt bigger and more muscular--though that may have just been a contrast with the princess's body. The new parts certainly felt much larger than I remembered.

I found a belt pouch containing a small pile of coins.

"Well, stranger, you owe me for saving you from that fight."

If I was right in assuming this enchantment would last only as long as my opposite number wore the necklace, then I had only a limited amount of time to enjoy this.

I started looking for an open inn.

Copyright © 2015 by S. Andrew Swann


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