In Tarsan society, a woman’s role is highly regimented to the roles of being a beautiful wife or the proprietress of a silk business: clothing, decorations, and inns. Though, the further from the great towns, the restrictions ease up but don’t fade completely until outside the country’s borders.
— Waknir da Disrobin, The Invisible Yoke, A Woman’s Life in the Greatest Country
Beauty woke up to the crack of thunder and the rush of rain crashing against the roof. It plunked into metal gutters and rattled along the windows. With a groan, she peered up at the plaster ceiling. There was a damp spot in the corner near the window but the brown marks that surrounded the patch gave her hopes that it would only seep through instead of pouring out on the floor.
There were many curses in the world, but poor weather was not the one she was looking for. Not unless the rain could turn her love back into a beast.
Levered herself off the bed, she went over to her pack and pulled it away from the corner. With a quick glance to the outside, she guessed she had a half hour to meet Daman at the dead tree. Just enough time to get cleaned up, maybe grab some food, and then head out. She hoped it wouldn’t take long.
Twenty minutes later with a wet washcloth and she was ready to go. She didn’t bother with her town outfits but went straight to the sensible trousers and a light chemise with appropriate support for her body underneath. The chemise wouldn’t handle the weather well, but she had a new vulcanized rubber top that shed almost all water though it would quickly grow stifling in the heat of the inn. It had been cut in a short jacket that was snug to her skin without being tight or binding.
Grabbing a smaller, more maneuverable pack, she double-checked the supplies before sliding her forearm and thigh daggers and sheaths inside. The ones in her boots were already in place as was the knife in her hair and the hooked strap around her waist. She didn’t want the town people to know her martial ability.
The final part was her favorite, wide-brimmed hat of the same material and shade of dark brown as her outerwear top. In the woods, it would make her harder to see but also protect her against the rain.
Wrapping her top and hat around her sword to obscure it, she hefted everything and headed downstairs.
The bottom floor was dark and quiet. No one sat at the front desk so she headed back.
Pid, wearing a poncho of oiled cloth, hummed to herself as she layered the spiced beef from the night before across four pieces of thick-slicked bread. She had a jar of preserves next to her along with a jar of pickles. Apparently unaware of Beauty, she sang to herself, “Gonna see my puppy, my little puppy, of three years old. He’ll be bold. Then comes summer, and he’ll come here.”
Beauty grinned. She remembered singing the song when she was little. Her sisters hated it, but she would always insist on belting out the words whenever they walked along the creek.
Spotting a bread knife teetering on the edge of the counter, Beauty set down her own supplies before grabbing the place.
Pid grabbed some cheese and carved out chunks. “Gonna see my puppy, my little puppy, of four years old. He’ll be bold. Then comes summer, and he’ll come here.”
In the middle of dropping the slices on the bread, Pid froze. Her eyes flickered to Beauty. “Um… good morning?”
“Good morning, Pid.”
“You are up early,” came the cagey tone.
“Well, I heard some singing and thought some spiced meat sandwiches sounded good. Is one of those for me?”
Without answering, Pid grabbed the bread and looked around for the knife.
Beauty handed it to her.
“Um, think there is enough for four more.”
Pid’s eyes widened. “You’re eating with someone too?”
“Yes, maybe.” Beauty smiled. “I need to go find that unicorn for you, right?”
“Oh, yes! Did you find one? Should I…” Her eyes glanced at the bread.
Beauty rearrange the counter and set down the new pieces of breads. “Well, I haven’t found one yet. But I was going out of town and look around. You never know if I find one.”
Pid beamed. “I hope you find one and she’s really pretty.”
“With flowers on her rump,” Beauty said with a gentle tap on Pid’s nose. “Hand me the meat and I’ll slice off some for myself.”
Beauty started to sing as she prepared her meal. “Gonna see my puppy, my little puppy, of five years old. He’ll be—”
They sang together as they finished preparing eight sandwiches. Pid made a small basket for both of them, adding in pickles wrapped in wet fabric, the meat and preserve sandwiches in oiled cloth, and a handful of small apples.
After cleaning up, they both left: Pid out the back door and Beauty following after her after putting on her hat and winter shell. She tucked her sword in with the lunch to hide it as best as she could. By the time Beauty left the inn and closed the door behind her, the little girl was gone.
Hefting her pack and lunch for two, she walked to the southern gate. She was drenched almost immediately but her outfit held up to keep it away from her skin.
Disinterested, the guards waved her through with a yawn.
Beauty went a distance until she couldn’t see the gate and then cut up to find a path leading to the dead tree. It took her almost a half hour to reach the dead tree.
Daman leaned against the withered trunk wearing his outdoor outfit, a waterproofed trench coat. It was almost expensive as her top, but they had been caught out in the rain enough times that it was worth the price.
The hilt of his sword stuck out of the front of his coat, easy reach to draw it quickly. He also had his bow, though he had not strung it to keep it away from the rain that hammered around them. A quiver of arrows rested in the crook of his elbow.
Seeing her, he straightened. “My Beauty.”
“I brought lunch,” he said and held up a bottle of wine. Clear droplets slid down the misty sides.
She gave him a wry smile.
“It was as much as I could steal before someone noticed. They are always serving food in trays, which makes poor travel meals.”
Beauty held up her basket. “Well, at least your love knows how to feed you.”
Daman held up his hands. “My excuse is that I had servants my entire life.”
“Your excuse,” she said handing him the basket so she could pull out her sword and strap it on, “is that you have to pretend to be the rich asshole who deserves to be cursed.”
He sighed and pulled her close to kiss her. “Yes, it’s a hard role compared to yours, the wayward waif traveling alone looking for dire magics for the man who betrayed her.”
She giggled and kissed him, tasting wine, rain, and his breath. As soon as she strapped on her sword, she settled it into place. A few moments later, she had the wire released around the hilt to make it easy to access. “Ready to go?”
“Yes, my love. May we find horrors on our journey.” He held out his elbow for her.
With a grin, she rested her hand on it while resting her other on the hilt of her sword. “We shall.”
Together, they headed into the rainy woods in search for a curse.