Sure, get your face painted like a tiger at the weird renaissance fair booth. What could go wrong? Explicit.
Stepping into the face-painting tent felt like stepping into another world. Perhaps that should have been a warning sign. The tapestried walls of the tent caught the sun, which illuminated their ornate wheels and intricate knots and meanders in silhouette, and bathed the small tent in bronze light. When the tent flap closed behind me, the noise of the fair became muffled and distant.
Sitting on a stool, behind a podium with 'Face Painting' stencilled on it in blackletter, was a woman in a flowing dress, which might have been purple, but the amber light transformed it into satin black. Her braided hair rolled down her back, to the laces of her leather corset. Leaning on her podium with one elbow, she held between her fingers a small crystal ball. She seemed more interested in it than in me, and she wasn't very interested in it.
"Hi," I said, to break the quiet. "You do face painting?"
Briefly, she glanced at me, then back down. "Hold on," she said, and sat up slightly. With a wave of a finger, a gleaming light flickered into the crystal ball. "Hmm. You came to the fair alone, didn't you?"
I made a shy, shrugging laugh. "Yeah, I guess so."
The glow from her crystal ball lit her arched eyebrows. "You want a more exciting life," she said.
That was fair to say of anyone at a renaissance fair. The way she said it was uneasily accurate, though, like she'd plucked the unrealized thought right from my mind. I nodded quietly.
"And you want me to paint your face...like a fairy," she said, with a lazy wave of her hand meant to be dramatic. "Right?"
A moment's silence passed as I came back to reality. "Um, actually no. I was thinking some kind of animal?"
With a a sigh, an eye-roll, and a snap of her fingers, the crystal ball vanished. "That's a lesson for you. Never buy from fortune tellers." She shook her head, then her eyes focused on me again. She stood from the stool and leaned over the podium. "So. What manner of beast does the fair lady wish to be? I've done panthers, griffins, leucrotta..."
I said, "A tiger would be cool."
"Tigers I can do too. But before we start, you'll need to say it yourself: 'I wish to be a tiger'. I can't make the magic work if you don't." She emphasized the word 'magic' by waggling her fingers.
That ought to have been my second warning sign, but it just seemed like a comfortingly cheesy act. I laughed, and said, "Then I wish to be a tiger.".
The woman's face lit up, and she gave her stool a kick. It skidded across the dirt floor, then teetered to a stop in the middle of the tent. Reaching into the podium, she drew out an inkwell and a fine brush with an ebony handle. "Excellent. Have a seat and—ah, payment. I take gold, or silver, or—"
I'd just sat down on the stool with my sneakers resting on the bottom rung. "I've got tickets," I said, digging into my front pocket. I pulled out a wad of the red tickets I'd gotten from the admissions booth, each stamped with the words 'One Florin'.
A disappointed look curled the corner of her lips. "Tickets? Really, how do they expect me to get by these days?" She pursed her lips and snorted. "Fine. Currency is currency. Five tickets."
I picked out five tickets and shoved the rest in my pocket. Before I could get up to give them to her, she snapped her fingers, and there were the five tickets in her hand and none in mine. I rubbed my fingertips together, almost expecting some trick of the light. I thought she ought to have a magic act, instead of doing face painting.
If that was another warning sign, it came too late. I was already trapped. I just didn't know it yet.
Rolling the sleeves of her dress back, she picked up her inkwell and brush, then came over to stand beside the stool. The brush spun between two of her fingers as she reached out, nudging my chin so that I was facing forward, eyes level, head straight. "Now, you'll want to try to sit still," she said. "It'll be easier that way."
I tipped my eyes to the side, watching the brush dip into the ink, roll across the edge of the well, and come away tipped with pure black. She leaned in and touched the brush to the tip of my nose.
The ink was cold and its ticking wetness threatened to make me sneeze. My lips quivered a bit, but I did my best to hold steady while she traced a tiger's wide nose and curled nostrils across the front and along the sides of my nose. I breathed in the faint charcoal smell of the ink and pursed my lips to hold my face still.
Soon, she moved on to my cheeks, dotting out lines for whiskers. I held back the urge to brush my nose against the back of my arm. With each slow breath, my nostrils flared broader across my face.
The painter's expression was no longer bored, but finely focused. Head cocked to one side, she stippled the lines along my cheeks, then paused, dipping the brush into the inkwell again before drawing it across my lower lip.
At the tip of my nose, the ink glistened as it dried onto my skin. As it dried, the shape of my nose began to spread and stretch. The skin between the ink lines grew soft and malleable, then swelled outward, forming a broad, flat snout, flanked by thicker, puffier cheeks. My eyes widened. I didn't move. Fine whiskers glimmered in the air in front of me. Orange fur filled in the spaces between the black lines. My mouth drifted open, its small, growing fangs hiding behind an ink-black lip.
"Um." I turned toward the painter, whose brush was trailing along my jaw. With a gentle but insistent push, she nudged my swelling snout back to the front.
"Please stay still," she said.
I could see the back end of the brush tracing a path through the air, mirroring the trails of black ink that curled up along my cheekbones: fine lines, broad swoops, small careful marks. Once laid down, the ink seeped into my skin, pushing and stretching, then swelling out into thick fur. Orange and white filled the space between the black. My face grew larger, broader, longer. My skin was hot against the cool ink, hotter still as it bulged and grew and covered itself in a sleek pelt.
"Aah," I said. My rough tongue curled in my mouth and bumped up against the fangs rising from my jaws. I reached up, groping for my face, but the painter pushed my hands back down into my lap.
Her brush slipped around my eyes. It curled underneath them, then made quick strokes above, small stripes rising from my brow. With a gentle touch, she coaxed my eyelid shut, then painted a chilly swath of ink across my eye, and a lighter dash across my eyelashes. As my eye fluttered open, I could feel the fur filling in around it. Colors and light swam in front of me, each appearing different between my tiger's eye and my human eye.
I looked up at her, my gaze equal parts confused, panicked, and mismatched. "What are you doing?" I asked, though my words slipped and slid inside my strange new mouth.
The painter let out a small snort and straightened her back. "You're going to have to stay quiet while I work on your head," she said. Her brush dipped deep into the ink and swirled, ready for another stroke.
If she wouldn't let me go, I'd leave on my own. I tried to stand up. I leaned forward, but as soon as I'd lifted myself not even an inch off the stool, the worst vertigo I've ever felt struck me squarely in the chest and I lurched back. I almost tipped over, but my hands grabbed the seat beneath me and I sat there, teetering back and forth, gasping for breath.
It was far past time to heed the warnings. I was trapped.
"Oh, right," she said, lifting her brush from the well, thick and wet with ink. "You won't be able to get up until I'm finished. And..." A swipe of her brush left a thick coat of black ink across my lower lip. My mouth hung open for a moment longer, then my jaw snapped shut. My fangs clacked against each other. The painter smiled. "Now we won't have any interruptions."
I tried to open my mouth, but my jaw was locked in place. I tried to peel back my lips, but they were sealed. An anxious whine left my nose. Already, I could feel the ink slowly sinking into my lip. It swelled outward, plumper and glossier, the ink like perfect black lipstick drawn across a thick pout.
The vertigo had fled, but my heart still pounded. Afraid that even leaning too far might throw me off balance again, I stiffened my back, straight as a tentpole, and clenched my hands tight in my lap.
There had to be a way out, I thought. In stories, magic like this like this always had a way out.
Returning to her work, the painter slipped my other eye shut. She painted the same two strokes: one to form the black stripe across my eye, another to draw out my eyelashes. My eyelid fluttered open, and my vision evened out once more, brighter and crisper than it had been. Her brush traced curling lines above my brow, arching upward as they reached the center. Fur swelled out around the drying ink, following the intricate pattern of stripes up my forehead.
Reaching my scalp didn't stop her. She kept inking stripes with her careful strokes. My spreading pelt swallowed up my hair as it went. With heavy, wet strokes, she coated the backs of my ears with ink, cold enough to make me shiver. As the ink dried, it seeped and stretched and rounded and rose, until two large, feline ears perched atop my temples, thick with fur. They twitched. I flicked one, then the other. They folded back instinctively.
The painter worked around my head until she reached the base of my neck. Swirling her brush in the inkwell, she paced back around to the front, and used a light touch to refine the details: the corners of my eyes, the contours of my eyebrows, the shape of my soft lip. After that, she stepped back a few paces, tapped the shaft of her brush against her chin, and smiled.
"I think you look good so far. I'll get the mirror when I'm done. For now, though—shirt off, please."
It was hard to sit straight. My head was larger; I couldn't tell by how much, but the size made me top-heavy and dizzy. I still couldn't open my mouth, but I groaned in protest. My fists tightened their grip on the hem of my shirt.
"Oh, okay," the painter said. She dipped the very tip of her brush into the ink, then leaned in close, until she was so close, she could have kissed the tip of my snout. The brush tip danced between my eyes, tracing quick strokes, and then...
Everything got heavy. The world got heavy. I got heavy. My arms hung limp by my sides and my head drifted toward my chest.
"Take your shirt off."
I couldn't think. My thoughts kept looping around and the only thing I could focus on was her voice, over and over. Rising on their own, my arms pulled my shirt up around my stomach, then my chest, then my head. The collar was too small now; it stuck against my chin until, with one hard tug, it came free and fell from my hands.
As I bobbed back up, the world sprung back to life. I could move again, but my shirt was on the ground, out of reach. I was left in just a bra, jeans, and a tiger's head.
"The bra too, please," she said.
Now I knew what would happen if I refused. Blushing beneath my fur, I reached behind my back and pushed the clasp of my bra open. The straps rolled off my shoulders. I tossed it on top of my shirt, then looked up at her, expectant and anxious, hands balling up in my lap.
"Thank you," the painter said, then gave me a small smile. "Let's get back to work. There's a lot more of you to get to."
Maybe there was no way out. Maybe this was the sort of tale where I didn't escape.
The painter disappeared behind my back, then nudged my shoulders to even them out and tipped my head up straight. With my new sense of hearing, I could pick out the bloop of the brush dipping into the ink, then the blip blip as the excess dripped back into the well. She picked up where she had left off, starting with broad strokes along the top of my neck. The cool touch still made me shudder. The hair on my arms stood on end, as did the fur on my head.
The ink dried, seeped into my neck, and made it grow. Muscle mass swelled up between the stripes, broadening as it crept down toward my shoulders. Tense sinew bristled just beneath my striped fur, along my neck and around my jaw and across my muzzle. The white fur on my chin spread down my throat, cut across with the stripes that stretched around my neck.
On my shoulders, she used strokes that were thicker and faster, but no less fine than the lines on my face. Long strips of cold black stretched from shoulder to shoulder. Even before the fur came pouring from my skin, the muscle stirred beneath. It surged up against the stripes, making them stretch and ripple around its swelling forms. Tendons popped as the ink pushed my shoulders apart. I was growing broad and powerful beneath the soft fur.
I tried to groan, but my throat transformed the sound into a growl. I tried to speak, but though my thick lip pursed and my fangs clenched, I still couldn't open my mouth.
The painter lifted my arms up, away from sides. I held them out as still as possible and tried not to imagine what she might do if I upset her again.
The brushstrokes curled around my back and sides, up onto my chest. I looked down, watching the painter's hand lead the brush around my right side, then my left, each time a little lower, each time drawing another stripe in wet ink.
Thick muscle continued to rise along my back, but now my chest was changing too. The cold ink against my warm flesh swelled and surged. My hands, still held away from my sides, balled into fists. My back arched and my toes curled. My chest was growing. My breasts stretched as the ink seeped deeper, pressing outward, growing more taut as they rose away from my ribs.
I couldn't have held them back if I tried. They ached. They were impossibly sensitive. And they were large—not just large for a human, but large for my bulky body, heavy atop my muscular tiger-chest, big enough to lean together in the middle, big enough that nipples jutted out fat and plump. Then the fur began to roll across my chest, white and striped, thick enough to hide all but the contours of my nipples.
In the midst of my swelling chest, the painter didn't stop her work. She kept laying down the stripes across my back, and the fur kept growing past my chest: soft and white on my front, sleek and orange on my back, both cut across by black brushstrokes. Muscle rose to fill out the stripes, taut along my back and rippling down my stomach.
The ink stripes pulled me taller, making my back pop and groan. My tendons strained and stretched as I inched further away from the ground. A stronger heart thudded away against my ribs and more powerful lungs pulled deep breaths into my chest. My head spun. I felt nearly drunk.
The painter's hands pulled my right arm straight, then angled it down. I looked sidelong at her, watching her swirl the brush in the inkwell, then stroke off the excess, a motion that had been practiced into instinct. Her eyes fixed on my body like I was a canvas, like she saw me only as line and form and contrast.
She began to paint the stripes along my arm. The trail of her brush grew lighter and slimmer as it moved from my shoulder toward my elbow. Then she took my hand, spreading it open, palm up. While she traced paw pads and claws in ink on my fingers, the heat was already building beneath the streaks along my arm. Broad shoulders gave way to thick biceps, bulging out among the stripes. Tendons in my arm popped and tensed as burly muscle swirled down toward my wrist.
The painter switched sides, beginning work on my left arm. I kept watch on my right. My fingers trembled, glistening with the still-wet ink. My upper arm was of a piece with my shoulders, and my lower was was thickening to match. Orange fur rolled down my skin, thick enough to cushion the rippling muscle, smoothing it out into soft, supple swells.
My hand, spread open, began to grow out into the lines of ink traced across it. The sweeping strokes across my palm became a wide, smooth pad, broad and supple as leather. Smaller pads puffed out from my fingertips, tight and thick, coaxing my fingers to thicken, themselves. My hand clenched, more like a curled paw than a tight fist, and from the tips of my fingers sprung sharp claws. They relaxed again. The claws vanished into my spreading pelt, leaving just thick, pad-tipped fingers. Even without claws, my hand must have been twice its original size.
Leaving my left arm to fill out as my right had, the painter moved back behind me. I heard the clink clink of her brush swirling heavily in the inkwell, preparing for more thick strokes. She had already reached down to my waist, though. What could come next?
The sweep of cool ink across my lower back was so sharp it made me flinch. Something pressed out from the base of my spine, curling into the air, stretching further from my body with each wet stripe painted across it. It was my tail.
My jaw clenched and my back arched. Each swell of my tail sent a shudder running the length of my spine. From my neck to my waist, muscle bunched beneath my plush fur. Thrust out, my chest rose and fell with my quick breaths.
Fur filled in quickly after the ink. Orange flooded between the black, filling out the smooth shape of my tail to its tip. Fully-grown, nearly three feet long, it draped casually through the air behind me. The painter placed her hand between my shoulders and stroked my fur, down my spine and out to the tip of my tail. Then she did it again, a few more times, until a reluctant rumble rose from my throat. She stopped and came back around to face me.
"You're coming along nicely," she said. A proud smile tickled her lips. Her eyes moved from my ink-striped face to my heavy chest. "...and I can tell you'll be popular."
With a growl, I wrapped one thick arm across my breasts. I tried my hardest to be firm and intimidating, but my thoughts were a muddled mess. My body was awash in tiger hormones and my human mind didn't know what to do with them. The hand gripping my chest began to knead one of my fat nipples, while my other hand was tucked between my legs, claws gripping the seat.
The painter pursed her lips. "Hm. That's right," she said. Opening her mouth, she daubed the tip of her brush on her tongue, then raised it to my lips. My jaw came unsealed and swung open. I took huge, panting breaths of air and stretched my fangs and rolled my tongue across my thick, dark lip. My fur bunched against itself when I wrinkled my nose.
I spoke, but it didn't sound like me. The tone was deep and thick, a better fit for a powerful tiger, and the changed shape of my mouth and tongue made my words come out strangely accented. It was a powerful and soothing voice, but it wasn't mine. "Why are you doing this?" I asked.
"You asked to be a tiger, and you gave me payment. That's the rules. You wanted a more interesting life, didn't you?" she asked.
"What are you?"
Her brush flicked between her fingers. "Highly skilled. Now, we've still got the rest of you to get to, so if you wouldn't mind getting up and bending over," she said, then added, sensing my hesitance, "As long as you're touching the seat, you should be fine."
Did I have a choice? Either I did as she said, or she would make me do it. All things being equal, I preferred not being ensorcelled.
Carefully, with the arm still draped across my chest, hand still kneading my swollen nipple, I lifted myself from the stool. My other hand remained planted on the seat, holding the weight of my bulky upper body. I stepped back until I was bent at the waist, leaning over the stool. My tail flicked low through the air behind me. I took deep, hungry breaths and arched my chest against my firm arm.
"Wonderful," said the painter. "Let's finish you off." She wetted her brush with ink again, then leaned down over my back and traced some quick symbol onto the seat of my jeans.
The next moment, my pants had vanished, and my underwear along with them. I was left half-tiger and almost all-naked, save for the shoes on my feet. My cheeks flushed beneath my fur. I was bashful, yes, but also dizzy and swimming in tiger-urges. With a delicate shuffle, I switched arms, now leaning on the left and holding my chest back with the right. My paw pads began to work my other nipple. My breath hitched in my throat and my thighs pressed together.
The painter began her work again, and the cool touch of the ink against my skin sent a shiver up my spine. Each stroke she made curled across my bare ass, around my hips, and ended with a flick of the wrist toward my loins. The wet black stripes began to flow and to mould my body. As before, powerful muscle rose beneath my skin, wrapping around my ass and thighs, before softening with fat and fur.
My claws sunk into the seat and my toes curled inside my shoes. The white fur on my belly crept lower. Tight twinges deep in my body squeezed a heady growl from my throat. My thickened thighs squeezed firm around my swollen mound. It wasn't my fault. I was drunk off my own body, overwhelmed by hormones, unable to control myself. My brain was stewing in tiger-juices.
Beneath me, my left arm buckled. I slumped shoulder-first against the stool and let out a plaintive yowl. While I squirmed and shivered, my left hand slipped past my soft underbelly fur and slid between my thighs.
That I was doing this in front of the painter didn't seem to matter, either to my body, or to her. She simply tapped me on the thigh and told me to spread my legs.
The grinding need filling my body made me as pliant as any spell. I inched my legs open, feet arched and standing on my toes, backside lifted high into the air. It took all my will to keep my legs from trembling. I huffed hot breaths against the seat, one hand toying with my chest, while the other spread my folds apart. As thick and cushioned as my padded fingers were, they seemed perfectly sized for my body.
Still, when my fingers slipped inside of me, they seemed so much larger than I was used to. I had to be careful, to keep my claws retracted, to only use the soft, leathery pads. And I was careful at first, but as my body lit up beneath my touch, my stroking grew more eager and mindless.
While my tiger-urges had their way with me, the painter continued her work along my legs. Her brush tip tickled the backs of my knees. Drying ink seeped into my skin, made my body malleable, and tugged at my legs to stretch me taller still. Thickening muscle stretched and growing joints popped. A loud rumble rolled out of my throat.
Wild, flickering fantasies kicked up like sparks around my reeling mind. My eyes fluttered back as I imagined feeling the touch of skin and of scales and of fur and of feathers against my bare body. A panting whine squeezed from my nose. My arm dropped from my chest and clutched at the legs of the stool instead. If I slipped, it felt like I'd never stop falling.
The ink stretched across the front of calves. Against the bare air, it chilled my skin, then stretched around the warm, aching swell of muscle tone. The fur rolled down from my knees, swallowing everything up beneath my thick pelt, inching closer and closer to my ankles.
I hung precariously off the stool, hand crammed between my legs, knees threatening to buckle. I was larger and stronger than I'd ever imagined being, and yet I felt I might break at any moment. Even the fantasies flowing through my head were unraveling into a jumble of images, a hectic collage of unfulfilled desires.
When she reached my feet, the painter didn't bother to command me to take off my shoes, or even to make them vanish like she had with my jeans. She dipped her brush into the inkwell and painted right onto the canvas and rubber itself: stripes curling around the heel, thick paws along the toes.
Even wrapped up in the aching tightness between my legs, I could feel the ink reshaping my feet. It drew my heels higher, until they burst straight through the backs of my shoes tall and striped. My shoelaces clung to the arches of my feet, holding my shoes together for now, though they strained tighter by the second. The front of shoes bulged outward as my swelling toes struggled for space. The shape of each individual toe was visible, crammed tight together. Finally, the sole split away from the top, and my toes burst free. Thick, leathery pads spread wide and claws dug into the dirt floor.
Freed from my shoes, they were now free to grow. The soles tore off completely and the laces fell away, leaving me standing on bare paws. My toes splayed as their pads grew beneath me. Orange fur rushed in from my high ankles, filling out my paws, making them seem even larger. A few more snaps as joints grew, a few more twitches as tendons pulled tight, and then it was done. Compared to the shreds of my shoes, my new paws were massive.
I leaned against my cheek like a cushion, skin burning hot against the polished wood. My breath fogged against the varnish as I let out deep gasps. All I could think of them was the wetness between my fingers, the swollen tightness of my pussy, and the way my entire body was ringing like an alarm clock.
With a small nod, the painter rose to her feet swept back her dress. In a pleasant voice, she said, "It looks like you're just about—"
I didn't hear her. My body clenched. Powerful muscles bunched against one another, claws curled, hot juices ran between my paw pads, and I roared. Of all the cats that roar, the tiger's roar is the greatest. It burst from my lips as if I was breathing fire, while my thoughts melted under the white-hot glow of an untamed orgasm.
At some point, my knees hit the ground. My hips followed, and then I was slouched on my side against the stool, glassy-eyed and gasping, legs cocked open, with a rivulet of fluid running down the corner of my lower thigh.
"I said..." the painter began to say.
Some tiger instinct clicked in my mind. I leaned forward, curling my back until I could have planted my nose between my legs. My tongue slipped out, brushing along the fur of my inner thigh, lapping until it was thoroughly cleaned. Then, I flopped back against the floor, running my tongue along my thick lip, as the numb afterglow slowly ebbed and I could begin to think again.
The painter snorted and rolled her eyes. "Well, you're done. Pick yourself off the floor, enjoy being a tiger." She lifted the stool and made a show of stepping over my legs to get back over to her podium.
"Wait," I said, pushing myself up on one of my hands. My voice felt natural to my body, but still strange and exotic to my ear. "I don't...I don't have any clothes. I can't just..."
"You have fur, don't you?" She set the stool down with a thunk, took a seat, and crossed her arms.
I rose up to a sitting position, one arm holding my breasts still. "I want clothes," I said, with a firmer tone and a sharper look in my eyes.
"Why don't you put your shirt back on, then?" she asked.
I plucked my shirt off the ground. Next to me, it could have belonged to a child. "I want my clothes, and I want them to fit," I said. Slowly, I dragged myself to my feet. First a crouch, then rising up, then straightening my back, until I stood nearly eight feet tall. I bared my fangs, wrinkling the thick fur along my snout. "Or would that be too hard for you?"
The painter's eyes narrowed, fixed on mine. I glared back. With a frustrated sigh, she stood up and dipped her brush back into her inkwell. "Fine, fine. I'll give you back your clothes." A few drops of ink rolled off the tip as she tapped it against the side of the well.
Leaning up toward me, she lifted her brush to my face, and painted one sharp stroke between my eyes.
I took a step back, squinting and blinking. As the ink vanished beneath me fur, as if had never been there, I promptly forgot that she'd just done anything at all. I shook my head, then settled a clenched paw on my hips. "Well?" I asked.
"Hold your horses," she said. She crouched down behind the podium and dragged out a small chest, richly painted in swirling patterns of red and yellow. "Now, what did you come in with..."
One by one, she passed my clothes up to me, and I slipped them on. First, the gauzy silken sleeves, made of thin, translucent blue fabric and held around my arms and wrists by golden rings. I slipped them onto each arm in turn, then draped the veil, made of the same light material and trimmed in gold, across my snout. The red sash I tied around my waist, and on top of that, a golden belt, and finally, a long dagger with a fluted ivory hilt.
Exactly what I'd come in with.
One hand on my hip and the other on the pommel of my dagger, I took a deep breath. My bare chest rose and fell, and the tassels of the sash tickled my waist. "Thank you," I told her.
The painter nodded, smiled back at me, and began to push me toward the door. "Been a pleasure. Enjoy your new life. No refunds, one paint job per customer per year, we reserve the right to refuse service, et cetera." With a stronger shove than she should have been able to muster, she thrust me out through the tent flap. "Bye!"
I stumbled out of the tent. My head spun as my thoughts unwound from the spell, which I was only then realizing she'd put on me. I steadied my feet, shook my head, and looked down at my myself. None of the light silks draped over me even tried to cover my chest or between my legs. I'd been dressed up like some outlandish fantasy desert warrior. Everyone must have been staring at me, I thought. Then I looked up.
Wherever I was now, it wasn't where I had been. Red stone walls and columns bounded a broad market square, packed with stalls, gaudy awnings, and banners dyed every color that could be bought, brighter than oil paint in the unrelenting sun. The arid heat shimmered in the air and made me a bit less upset about my scant attire.
At one stall, sandy-skinned elves with opal eyes debated the purity of the silver trinkets on display. At another, a scaled creature shaded themselves with an eel-like tail as they hawked greenish things wrapped in seaweed. There were humans of every shade and degree, but there also were satyrs with their fur braided into kilts and nagas wrapped in milky fabric like snakeskins. And more beastly hybrids, too: cowled jackals hunched under their hoods and lions with beads and coins woven into their manes.
There were a hundred other astonishing things to see wherever you looked, so a particularly tall and well-proportioned tigress, even one who was wearing next to nothing, only turned a few passing heads.
I turned around, to march back into the tent and demand to be returned home, but found myself staring into a narrow, empty alley. The painter and her tent had vanished, as if they'd never been there. I put out my hand and grasped at nothing but air. No refunds.
Putting my hand down, I turned back. Beyond the canopies of the market square, the city spread itself wide beneath the bare blue sky. Its domes and towers were almost translucent in the haze, as if not quite real.
Then again, none of this seemed quite entirely real. The painter's voice came back to me: 'You wanted a more exciting life, didn't you?'
I had. And the more I considered that desire, the more my confidence welled up inside me. Here it was: a life I could make anything out of, a city full of opportunities, a body both powerful and beautiful enough that I could take any profession I chose. I liked tigers after all. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to be one.
At least, for a year. I considered her words: one per customer per year. I'd be back here in a year's time, then, to find the face-painter's tent again and get back home.
Or maybe I wouldn't.
Being a tiger might not be so bad. Especially if orgasms the likes of the one I'd just had were a common occurrence. With one last glance at the alleyway, fixing it in my mind so I could find it again, I turned my back and strode away.
As I thought about what I might do with myself, I licked my dark lip and let a smile curl my ink-black stripes.