We’re excited to share an excerpt from Wench, a funny and fast-paced epic fantasy from author Maxine Kaplan—publishing January 19th with Amulet Books.
Tanya has worked at her tavern since she was able to see over the bar. She broke up her first fight at 11. By the time she was a teenager she knew everything about the place, and she could run it with her eyes closed. She’d never let anyone—whether it be a drunkard or a captain of the queen’s guard—take advantage of her.
But when her guardian dies, she might lose it all: the bar, her home, her purpose in life. So she heads out on a quest to petition the queen to keep the tavern in her name—dodging unscrupulous guards, a band of thieves, and a powerful, enchanted feather that seems drawn to her…
Tanya was good at many things, but her most useful gift was breaking up bar fights.
The skill was one she had honed from her earliest days at the Smiling Snake, the biggest tavern in Griffin’s Port. When she was very small, all it had taken was stamping her foot and scowling. This stern-little-girl routine so amused the brawlers that they’d stop fighting to laugh, at least long enough for Froud to swoop in with a warm back-clap and a free round. No one ever clocked that it was, in fact, a routine, devised by a girl with a job to perform at the most inconvenient height of four-feet-nothing.
But, tonight, she wasn’t in the mood.
Tanya was, of course, the first to hear the raised voices by the hearth. She sighed and looked over at Froud; he was snoring away in a rocking chair next to the bourbon barrels. He wheezed through a particularly loud snore, knocking his head against the wall. She pulled her cloak off its hook and bundled it into a pillow, slipping it behind his head.
“Tanya! Tanya! Tanya!”
Froud slipped off his chair a little and Tanya caught him. “I’ve got my hands full, not my ears, Kit Brightblood,” she snapped. “What can I help you with?”
“Oooh. Feeling a little cheeky tonight, are we?”
Just tired. Like she always was, but who could complain about too much work? “Don’t you worry about my cheeks,” she said. “What is it?”
“My table wouldn’t say no to another bottle of wine.”
“In five minutes, Kit. I just have to settle Froud and then take care of whatever nonsense is happening by the fire first.”
By the time she was eleven, breaking up these fights was second nature. Froud had gotten so deaf and sleepy that he rarely even noticed when two drunken brawlers were on the brink of destroying the furniture. As with so many things at the Smiling Snake, it had fallen to Tanya to throw down her rag, turn the key in the cashbox, and vault her tiny, round body into the middle of any given fray.
Though tonight, looking down at the decaying old man she didn’t know how to help or fix, she thought that the next time two idiots decided to fight in her bar, she might just let them break each other’s heads open.
Tanya caught herself and shook the thought out of her head— doing nothing was never useful.
She settled her guardian’s head back on the makeshift pillow. He made a noise that almost sounded like a whimper.
Tanya frowned. He should really be in bed.
A glass shattered. The fighters’ voices got louder, the spectators going quiet. That was never a good sign—she had let it go on too long.
She grabbed two bottles of her strongest honey wine and a tray laden with tumblers. Bumping the side door of the bar open with one hip, and balancing the tray on the other, she went to work.
Tanya put her age at about seventeen. She hadn’t gotten much taller since she first arrived at the Snake, but she had gotten ever stronger, and she maintained perfect, constant control over herself and her domain. She was everything a tavern wench should be.
It was a typical night at the Snake. A local crew was about to embark on two weeks at sea—a young batch of fishermen, several on their first overnight expedition. Tanya mussed the younger boys’ hair, made eye contact with the mothers—good, no one is getting too drunk—and nodded with satisfaction that the blueberry syllabub she had brought over had been properly demolished. She could hear new arrivals coming through the door, a boiling wind in their wake.
The boiling wind transformed midair into hail, sending chips of ice skittering across the floor.
By now an expert at managing the environmental irritations of the Aetheric Revolution, Tanya neatly skipped out of the way and booted them into the ash pile.
No one offered to help her, but Tanya found it easier to do things her way anyway. She put grabbing a mop on her list, right under putting Froud to bed, serving Kit his wine, and breaking up the fight by the hearth.
Something crashed and Tanya sighed—All right, she thought. Let’s break up this damn fight.
She knew the moment she turned around that it had not been a moment too soon. Gregor Brightblood, the huge and hotheaded older brother of Kit, had two men in a headlock.
That was neither unusual nor something that Tanya couldn’t easily dispatch. The wrinkle here was that the two young men were dressed in the pale blue coats of the Queen’s Corps. And more corpsmen, more than Tanya had realized were on the premises, all twinkling with dangerous hardware and even more dangerous legal authority, were surrounding them.
Tanya might not have particularly liked Gregor, but it wouldn’t do to have him escorted from the Snake in chains.
Tanya rapped an elbow with the wine bottle and bounced through the subsequently vacated space. “Now that’s a sight I like to see,” she said, tidily breaking through Gregor’s left-hand headlock with the sharp end of the tray, sending the smaller corpsman plummeting to the floor. “One of the strongest specimens the Port Cities has to offer in an exhibition with the esteemed soldiers of the Queen’s Corps— easily the finest men in Lode.” She put her hand on Gregor’s right hand, which was wrapped around a skinny corpsman’s collarbone, and pried his fingers away.
She shoved Gregor in the back with her second wine bottle, pushing him toward his brother. The Snake regulars, knowing Gregor’s intractability when drunk, closed up behind them, and Tanya turned her attention to the corpsmen.
“Gentlemen,” she said, with as much honey in her voice as she could conjure. “Allow me to show my deep appreciation for your patience with our rowdier townsfolk—he’s just a crabber and is not equipped with the manners and discipline we of course expect of the Queen’s Corps.” She pulled out a chair for the first corpsman, still struggling to his feet, and dropped to her knees to retrieve something that had gotten knocked out of the skinnier one’s hands in his fall.
It was a box. A glossy, wooden box carved with a single flame. Tanya thought she heard something humming inside and moved to put it to her ear—only to have it snatched away by Skinny.
Still on her knees, Tanya recovered quickly and grinned. “Trinket for a sweetheart, sir? Lucky girl to have a handsome corpsman guarding her treasures so valiantly.”
The skinny corpsman was part of the way toward a smile when there was a scream from the bar and Tanya’s life as she knew it ended.
After the scream, no one moved fast enough except for Tanya. She knocked over the table, splashing beer all over her clean floor, and pushed past the crowd that had drawn up slowly around the bar—too slowly for Tanya to push past it. No one thought to make her a path and, of course, no one hopped the bar themselves to tend to the old man.
No, no one had moved fast enough, either toward Froud or out of her damn way, and by the time Tanya got to him, he was already dead.
Excerpted from Wench, copyright © 2021 by Maxine Kaplan.