Naef, a young woodworker, has been tormented all his life because of his appearance, and he’s raised a prickly set of defenses against future hurt. The only people he’ll allow close to him are his sister and his mother. When said sister hesitates to marry her true love because it would mean leaving Naef on his own, her suitor proposes a solution to settle her fears. Naef will spend a year as companion to the suitor’s cousin, freeing his sister from worry while introducing Naef to an unusual community where he can start fresh.
The cousin in question turns out to be a man cursed with the shape of an anthropomorphic lion and saddled with the improbable name Aerie-Smith. Aerie-Smith’s got an island full of subjects whose animal forms are more confining than his own, and he promises Naef a home for a year if he’ll end his stint as companion by performing one regrettable act will not only secure Naef’s family’s future but also free everyone from their curse.
The resulting story is part “Beauty and the Beast,” part “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” And I cried so damned hard.