Tarley, second daughter of Scarlett and Tomas Fareview, wasn’t sure if she liked the man sitting across from her youngest sister Aurielle. As Tarley stood at the barrel of ale, waiting for the last of the four tankards to fill, her eyes drifted to Auri, ensconced at a table in a darkened corner of the inn with her suitor. It may have been the middle of the day, but the inn was shrouded in the dark ambiance of too much stone and wood and not enough light. Despite that, Tarley still attempted to assess what was happening between her sister and the stranger in their dark corner. Tarley was protective of her little sister, and she didn’t trust easily—especially men.
It had been a little less than an hour ago that Auri had shown up at the back door to the kitchen of The Copper Pot Inn, asking for Tarley to cover for her.
“Auri, Mother is going to kill you.” Tarley had lowered her voice so that the words sounded like air escaping from her throat.
“Tarley, please?” Auri had clasped her hands between her breasts and begged Tarley with her gray eyes. “It’s just an outing, which Mother makes impossible.”
Tarley had rolled her own eyes.
Auri wasn’t supposed to be beyond the hedge where they lived with their parents. Since Auri’s Great Nap Escapade—falling asleep in the woods and losing her red ribbon, a gift from their mother—she’d been relegated to “around the cottage duties.”
“Do you think I want to cross Mother?” Tarley had glanced over her shoulder into the kitchen, thinking their mother might materialize, but it was empty. Instead, the dinner was steaming in a pot roasting over the heavy iron stove. Herbs and empty pots hung along the open wooden beams of the ceiling. Open shelves defined spaces holding dishes, utensils, jars, and supplies. The large square woodblock workstation held several loaves of fresh bread, still cooling, the aroma hanging in the air. Tarley had turned back to Auri. “Don’t be daft! She’ll have me as your second in tincture making, relegated to remaining behind the hedge.” Tarley had shuddered. “No thank you.”
Auri had stepped through the doorway and straightened her emerald skirts as if Tarley had already said ‘yes.’ “Mother was called to Denneby and took Jessamine with her. They’ll be gone, two days at least. And Brinna won’t tell. Besides, she and Papa and Mattias are out in the woods today.”
Tarley hadn’t liked the chicanery, but she also understood. Auri was a grown woman. How could she blame Auri for needing to get out? She did the same—her trips into the woods kept her sane. Tarley was sure Auri felt a bit like a prisoner. She would.
“Are you meeting the mysterious stranger you’ve mentioned?” Tarley had asked, recalling Auri’s giddiness a few nights prior. The only question in her mind as Auri had regaled them with minor and evasive tidbits was How? How could her sister have met anyone? And in Sevens!
Auri had nodded, a smile lighting up her face. “Yes!” She’d grabbed Tarley’s forearms and shaken her with excitement. “You’ll get to meet him. And I’m safe. Nothing bad will happen. I promise.”
“Famous last words.” Tarley had arched an eyebrow. “How did you meet him again?”
“Oh–” Auri had looked away and fussed with her skirts again. “On a trip to town.”
Recognizing her sister was lying, Tarley had narrowed her eyes. “That you never make anymore.” Tarley had grabbed at her own wrist, finding comfort in the ribbon still tied there.
Her sister had begged Tarley with her look to acquiesce, which Tarley had done with a nod. “Fine.”
Auri had flown into Tarley’s arms, wrapping her in a hug. “Thank you. I will owe you.”
“Just so we’re clear, I don’t trust any man.”
“This one, you can.” Auri had stepped away and backed out of the kitchen.
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“He’s wooing me.” Auri had grinned, a becoming blush brightening her cheeks.
Tarley had given Auri a look of disbelief, but now, nearly an hour later, Tarley watched as the dark-haired man across from her sister smiled, leaning forward across the table to touch Auri’s cheek. His touch lingered, his thumb so near Auri’s mouth. It was such a familiar gesture, Tarley felt the need to look away due to the intimacy of it, but she didn’t. Worried her sister was being duped by this handsome newcomer to Sevens, Tarley struggled to piece together Auri’s timeline. None of it made sense, especially because that touch suggested they knew one another. Perhaps better than Auri was letting on. Unless she was a bigger fool than Tarley took her for.
Goodness, he was handsome, to be sure. He could probably sway a blind woman, before opening his mouth and ensnaring the deaf woman too. More handsome than a man had the right to be, with that bronze skin dusted with a day-old beard, dark eyes, head of dark, unruly curls, and those unconventional dark clothes. It all added to his mystique.
Tarley watched her sister smile, her eyes flickering to the tabletop, then back up to the suitor she’d introduced to Tarley as Nixus Uraiahs. His appearance alone made it difficult to trust he had Auri’s interests at heart, but Tarley had never met a man who had anyone’s interests at heart other than his own. Add to it all this man, Nixus, was named after the old-world mythology’s god of night and darkness. Who named their child after an evil god?
To be fair, Tarley only tolerated most men. She loved her father and brother, and she accepted Mr. Cobble, a sweet old man from the marketplace, who adored their mother. Oh—and Horance Forte, the barkeep at The Copper Pot Inn. So far, there hadn’t been many instances to like the supposed stronger sex. Most of them had only ever used it to bully, bluster, and burden women, and worse yet, all their behavior was protected by the law of the Kaloma government.
“Good day, Miss Fareview.”
Tarley’s spine snapped straight at the voice, knowing the moment she turned who’d be standing at the bar. When she did finally turn, holding the last of the tankards she was filling, she wasn’t surprised to see Dr. Allean Rufus smiling at her. That smile made her grit her teeth.
The thing was, he wasn’t a terrible looking man, and his appearance wasn’t off putting as much as her nerves informed her he was. Had she put all stock in how a person looks, then Allean Rufus had everything in his favor. His blond hair was slicked into a side part, neat and tidy. He had a lush mustache that was full and stylish along with one of those clefts in his angular chin. He wasn’t egregiously tall, a middling height, she supposed, but tall enough to be slightly taller than her. He was wider, built lean, and strong if the way his clothing fit could hint at his strength. He always wore smart trousers, tailored shirts under dark vests and jackets with expensive shoes or boots. A gold timepiece hung from his pocket. Everything about him hinted at his wealth.
A newcomer to Sevens—an herbalist and healer like her mother—he’d once told Tarley that he “had brought his healing arts to the heathens to save them from the witches.” The nerve, considering who her mother was. And so pretentious. Gods, she hated the man. She wished she’d punched him upon that first meeting. She would have saved herself the headache of his repeated attempts at courting her favor, and her repeated rebuffs of those attempts. It was a ridiculous cycle from which she hadn’t been able to extract herself. She also couldn’t fathom his persistence.
“Doctor.” She grabbed the handles of the four steins.
“Did you give any additional thought to my invitation?”
“After my initial opposition upon receiving it?” she asked. “No. My answer hasn’t changed.” Tarley turned her head to Horance. “Which table?”
“That table of four.” The barkeep nodded from the other end of the counter to the table near the hearth.
A man at the table where she was headed yelled, “Where’s our drinks?”
Tarley rolled her eyes and said to Horance, “Taking them now.” She scooped up the tankards.
“But Miss Fareview, I think a riverside picnic will be just the thing to demonstrate my regard.” Rufus’s head tracked her as she moved around the bar.
“No thank you, Mr. Rufus.”
She refrained from rolling her eyes. “Dr. Rufus. Not inclined, and I’m working, sir.”
“But, Miss Fareview–”
Tarley left the doctor’s declarations behind without looking back and worked her way across the room. Time with Rufus? Absolutely not. Time on her own for a solitary trip into the woods? Absolutely. A few days alone in the woods. Heaven. While her forays into the Whitling Woods weren’t the safest of endeavors in Kaloma, especially for a woman—not with the threat of collectors and their roundups—she and her family had worked out a disguise to make the stints safer. Adding to it the lessons from her father in self-defense and using the forest to camouflage herself, she felt relatively safe disappearing into the wilds. She couldn’t think about that now; she needed to focus on surviving work.
A strange energy filled with tension worked its way through The Copper Pot, which made Tarley tense as she moved between tables. Perhaps because of the impending visit of the Queen of Kaloma, who was set to arrive in the village of Sevens any day now, the village was on tenterhooks with anticipation. It was the most exciting thing to ever happen to Sevens in its whole existence, and the very reason Credence had given Tarley a position at the Copper Pot Inn.
Tarley had lived within the confines of Sevens for twenty-six years. While usually a sleepy, inconsequential settlement in the Whitling Woods at the northern edge of the Kaloma Kingdom, the news of the Queen’s visit had caused the village to burgeon with new life. And, because it wouldn’t just be Kaloma Royals visiting, but a royal contingent from the bordering kingdom of Jast journeying to meet the Queen for whatever it was the royals did, many new faces had arrived in the village, like Dr. Rufus—all hopefuls seeking to capitalize on the coin the royal visit would incur.
“There ya are,” a gigantic stranger slurred as she arrived at the table.
“Four ales,” she told the man and his companions as she set the tankards down on the table and offered a fake smile to each of them.
At one time, when Tarley and her sisters were younger, they lamented that there was no one their age in the village. But now there were so many strange faces, she wished they’d all go away again. This man and his party were among the newcomers. Most of the new life in Sevens were single men in search of fortune or gainful employment. And most of them were the very men who annoyed, belittled, harassed, harangued, and mistreated women already in short supply.
Sevens was a place that required a certain level of fortitude. It was why it was short of women and families and had been primarily a trading outpost for most of Tarley’s life. Winter lingered for nine months of the year, then spring would arrive, and summer would play for a few weeks before it turned cold again. Her own family had eked out a living—barely—until Auri had found a key laden with gems in the woods after the Great Nap Escapade. With the wealth they gained from the key, they could have moved to the capital of New Taras—or anywhere in Kaloma—if they wanted, but her parents had insisted on staying in Sevens, in their tiny cottage within the confines of the hedge. They loved the life they’d built there. Besides, where could a woman go in Kaloma to escape the Law of Means? Sevens was as good a place to hide as any.
Tarley didn’t love Sevens, but she loved the woods. Or rather, she loved the way she could disappear into the wilds and claim her independence. She loved being in a place so remote, no one questioned her. Except that had begun to change. Now that the Queen had put their small village on the map, and everyone had decided to make a run for their share of coin, it meant putting up with assholes like Mr. Four-Tankards and friends, who were presently making crude jokes, taunting her.
Ignoring them, she turned her back to the men to collect empty dishes on a nearby table. A meaty hand grabbed a handful of her skirt, including the right cheek of her backside, laughed as he did, and squeezed. With a screech, Tarley swung the used tankard in her hand, the cup connecting with the face of the offender, who yelped in pain.
The noise in the room fell into a chasm of silence.
“How dare you!” Tarley snapped. “Keep your filthy hands to yourself.”
The man—Four-Tankards himself—a beefy tradesman who reeked of sweat and looked stained with dirt, moved from the wooden planks of the floor where he’d fallen to a knee and stood, a hand pressed to the side of his head. “How dare a woman swing on a man.” He straightened, bringing him several hands taller than Tarley, his complexion rapidly reddening.
“But you’d swing on a woman?” she retorted.
“You bitch,” he spat, spittle lingering on his lips.
Tarley took a step back. “Among other things,” she said, narrowing her eyes and wishing she had more than a tankard as a weapon.
This was bad.
She took another step back and met resistance, colliding with the unforgiving wall of someone else. Afraid Four-Tankards would retaliate if she glanced away, Tarley kept her gaze forward, and realized Four-Tankards was frowning at whoever stood behind her.
“Excuse me?” a deep voice rumbled.
Tarley chanced a quick glance over her shoulder to discover the person behind her was Auri’s suitor. He wasn’t looking at Tarley, however, his dark, unnerving gaze leveled on the giant arsehole.
Mr. Uraiahs gently moved past Tarley, placing himself between her and the seething bull of a man who’d dared touch her.
“You should mind your business, stranger,” Four-Tankards said, his skin mottled red. “This is between me and the wench.”
Mr. Uraiahs turned his head to look at Tarley, his eyebrow arching over one eye. “Wench?” Then he turned to Four-Tankards again. “Is that how you speak with women, sir? It’s no wonder you would have to manhandle one. If that’s your tableside manner, one doesn’t want to imagine what your bedside manner might entail.” He glanced at Tarley and tipped his head. “Please excuse my coarse language.”
Four-Tankards’ face soured even further.
Mr. Uraiahs climbed a few notches in Tarley’s esteem.
“It’s a wonder he would know his way around a woman at all,” Tarley added for good measure, stepping up next to Mr. Uraiahs, willing to fight for herself even if she was greatly at a disadvantage.
Mr. Uraiahs tipped his head back and laughed. It was a loud guffaw of mirth, and though perhaps a bit overdone, seemed to be committed with an intention to hit its mark, an arrow in the bullseye.
“I’m going to show you the way around my fists,” Four-Tankards said to Mr. Uraiahs, his voice a low rumble of words ground through his teeth and a clenched jaw.
“Now that,” Mr. Uraiahs said, his tone as cold as granite with the added bite of winter, “I would love to accommodate.” His mirth was gone, and a menacing look moved over his features that gave even Tarley pause.
“Not in my establishment you don’t,” Credence Crendell, the proprietress of The Copper Pot, yelled from across the room. She moved through the doorway past her brother Horance, who’d made his way around the bar. Credence’s white hair was an explosion of tight coils that framed her brown face, shaped now by the frown. She pointed at the door. “Get out, the lot of you. And anyone getting handsy with my workers isn’t welcome here.”
Mr. Uraiahs took a step back and with the wave of his hand, gestured that Four-Tankards could lead the way outside.
Four-Tankards stalked past Mr. Uraiahs toward the door.
“Nix,” Auri said, blocking Mr. Uraiahs. “Are you sure?”
Nix? Tarley was surprised at the familiarity and wondered if her sister was worried because Mr. Uraiahs was smaller than the dimwit who’d stomped outside. Not significantly shorter, but Four-Tankards had arms the size of small tree trunks. He didn’t seem the sort to shy from a fight or a confrontation, which could put Mr. Uraiahs in physical peril.
But Mr. Uraiahs tipped his head to the side, gave Auri an arrogant grin, and arched that dark eyebrow again. “Now, Auri, are you worried for me?”
Auri? Tarley noted something secret passing between her sister and this man. She knew she would have to interrogate Auri sooner rather than later. If their mother found out about clandestine meetings with a suitor she hadn’t vetted—Tarley shuddered at the thought of Scarlett’s wrath. Her mother was going to know something was up if a suitor suddenly appeared.
Auri smiled sweetly at Nix, stepped out of his way, and watched him go, calling, “Maybe don’t end him.”
“You’re not worried he’s going to get hurt?” Tarley asked.
Auri glanced at Tarley, her cheeks pinking with a blush, then shook her head. “Not at all.”
Tarley narrowed her eyes at her sister. “How well do you know him?”
Auri just smiled sublimely without a word, then started after the all-too-handsome suitor.
Tarley followed, stopping with Auri in the open doorway.
But by the time she reached the door along with the rest of the patrons, Four-Tankards was on the ground looking like he’d been through a raging storm, battered, bruised, his clothing rumpled and torn as blood gushed from his nose and mouth.
Shocked, Tarley looked at Mr. Uraiahs. His hands appeared perfectly fine. Not a bruise or cut marred his skin. Not a shred of his dark clothing was in disarray. He rubbed his hands together as if wiping offensive material from his palms and said, “Perhaps, sir, as you recover from these wounds, you’ll take some time to reflect on your treatment of women.”
“Who are you?” Four-Tankards sputtered.
“Your worst nightmare.”
“I’m going to get you.” Four-Tankards spat, the dark soil turning black as it mixed with his blood.
Mr. Uraiahs smiled an unholy smile. “You can certainly try.”
Named after the evil god indeed, Tarley thought.
And with that, Mr. Uraiahs turned and walked away, completely unconcerned as he made his way back into The Copper Pot through the crowd that parted to make way for him. At the door, he turned to Tarley. “Are you alright, Miss Fareview?”
She nodded, speechless. He didn’t have a mark on him, not a speck of dust, no hair out of place. His skin was as flawless as before. No indication of the violence that had taken place.
Auri threaded her arm through Mr. Uraiahs’s with a bright smile on her face, her adoration shining in her expression.
Light flared in Tarley’s vision, weaving golden threads between Auri and her suitor.
That certainly couldn’t be right. She shook her head, hoping she wasn’t coming down with one of her headaches. After she watched them return to their luncheon, she glanced back at Four-Tankards in the street, now shrugging off his friends’ assistance.
It was clear, she decided: not all men were created equal.
“Tarley!” Credence grabbed hold of her and drew her back into the emptied-out dining room to the kitchen.
“I’m sorry–” Tarley stumbled.
“Don’t apologize,” Credence said, stabilizing her.
Mrs. Barnwell turned from slicing the fresh bread loaves to watch them.
“You weren’t in the wrong, dear, but you need to get out of the village. That vile man will report you straight away.”
“What happened?” Mrs. Barnwell asked.
“Gretta, would you prepare Tarley with another few days of food?” Credence’s dark eyes returned to Tarley. “He’ll bring a priest, or worse, a collector.” She swallowed. “We won’t have time to find your father. Let Horance and I smooth this over, yes? You go on your trip early.”
“I’m so sorry, Credence. I didn’t mean to–”
“Stop. What’s a few hours difference? And I’m not worried about The Copper Pot, girl! I’m worried about you. Get to the woods.” She pushed Tarley toward the back door and out into the yard. “I’ll tell Auri, and don’t come back until Mattias comes to get you. Now go.”
Tarley didn’t need any additional encouragement. She hustled up to her attic room, donned her disguise, collected her packs, and disappeared into the woods, taking several deep, grateful breaths of unfettered freedom.