There was a funny little detail about traveling as a man when you’re a woman, a funny fact it took Princess Star a while to notice, and when she finally did, it bothered her more and more with each passing day.
How Differently She Was Treated!
(while disguised as a man)
Men nodded with respect. Boys stared with glint and envy. Woman took her in with a glance that promised, well, Star wasn’t sure what it promised but the contrast to her previous life was so stark it was having a profound effect. Put simply: It was making her mad. She could share this with no one, especially not with her traveling companion, the young and trusty James, late of the Breezy Hill Inn. Especially not with him. James had turned out to be a boon companion; she could not have wished for better.
They stayed at inns along the way, and when there wasn’t one handy, they would make camp by the side of the road. After a miserable night or two James had (very practically) set out to acquire all sorts of things that Star (a practical princess, but untraveled) hadn’t realized would be important. Bedrolls (she thought her cloak would be enough). A food bag (both fresh and dried). A small bag of salt and another of spices. Flint and steel and a sack of dry tinder. Several wineskins filled with water. (Star was happy to discover James didn’t like wine, either. Good, she thought. He would not be the sort of companion who drinks too much and vomits in ridiculous places.) They also carried a bag of charms, plus Princess Star was wearing a gift James had given her. There was a story behind these, the charms and the gift.
It happened when they were passing through a fair-sized town called Rue d’ Illey (pronounced: Roo-Dilly). James had disappeared leaving Star to replenish their supplies. When he returned to the plaza where they had arranged to meet (in was the center of town and had a nice fountain with a statue of a fish spitting water into a fish pond) he was swinging an odd little bag and had an odd little expression on his face.
“Here, William of Ossetsia. I have a gift for you.”
Star snatched it up. She loved presents. She pulled out a small doll with a crudely-drawn face and misshapen limbs made out of mud. “Oh, thank you,” she said with a very small amount of enthusiasm (but some enthusiasm because she was a princess and had been well-trained—because you never know what sort of wacky thing a Head of State might think would make a nice gift).
“No, William of Ossetsia. That’s one of the charms. You’ll have to dig deeper.”
Charming, thought Star. She dug deeper and found more two ugly dolls, one shaped like a black dog (with real black-dog hair) and the other in the shape of a bell. Both made of mud, as well.
“No, William, deeper still.”
Star glanced at James. She had the distinct feeling he was enjoying himself a little too much (possibly even at her expense).
At the bottom of the bag was another bag, this one velvet. Inside she found a strange amulet on a fine silver chain. It was a flat disc about the size of a robin’s egg. It seemed to be made of a metal that looked like pewter only it was heavier than any metal Star had ever felt. The disc had a crystal face. Through it, Star could see gears and a curious series of lights that flashed (Star was to find out) in different patterns at different times of day. As she stared into the disc, it seemed to deepen in a strange way, as if the inside were bigger than the outside.
“What is this?” said Star.
“Oh, just a little something I picked up across town. You know…a dusty curiosity shop…a bent-over old crone…I just stopped by on a whim…she had the usual bric-a-brac…stuffed ravens…small feet in jars…funny little heads.” James lifted a second amulet out of his shirt (not cambric, just a nice brushed cotton) and swung it back and forth on its silver chain. “See, I got one, too. It’s supposed to keep away the baddies away. But William, whatever you do, don’t let anyone else see it.” He was emphatic about that point. (And doesn’t his story sound…well…just a little bit fishy?)
“What are these weird lights?” asked Star who had never seen anything remotely like them.
“Oh, just some local enchantment,” said James. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Try it on.”
Star slipped it over her head. The first thing she noticed was that it felt warm, warmer than it had in her hand. It was radiating…something…that she could feel deep in her chest. It wasn’t a bad feeling. It wasn’t a good feeling. It was just different. If it were any stronger, she would’ve taken the amulet off. And she’d probably get used to it (which she did after four or five days) and, bottom line, it tickled. So how bad could it be? (A lot worse than she realized.) Rue d’ Illey had been a month ago. The rest of the month featured increasingly rustic lodgings (a barn once, which was actually kind of fun because Star liked animals and so did Silver and James, and all the animals made peaceful sounds during the night) and, when an inn was not to be found, sleeping under the stars. Star often forgot she even had on an amulet, charmed or not.
Still some slightly strange things had been occurring. For one thing she was sleeping less. A lot less. And her mind seemed to be clearer (not that it hadn’t been clear before) but in a way it was hard to explain. (You know, like when you have a “good” day, when everything seems to click; people, places, things, all fall into place and you feel right, good; almost like you were expecting it to be that way. Well, Princess Star was having those days a lot now.) And when she stopped to think about it, she just felt like it was fine, great really, just a little weird. And she never connected it with the amulet at all.
One day they were riding along, or rather Star was riding along. James was loping along beside her. He had gotten tired of riding bareback and he didn’t know enough about horses to be trusted with the reins. (A not-to-be-mentioned incident with a dog and a rabbit with some rearing and some falling.)
By late afternoon they had reached a hamlet called Winchell’s Corner. It was tiny. A regular hamlet could lose most of its homes and still be grander than Winchell’s Corner. Looking at the place, Star could see just how far she and James had come from Delia. From civilization, really. Out here, the Great Highway looked like a deer trail.
The first dwelling they came across in Winchell’s Corner was a hut that two people (herself and James, for example) could not have slept in comfortably. Just a one-person hut that, from the boisterous sounds inside, seemed to contain a man, his wife, and their many children. The roof was made of reeds packed with moss. A few chickens scratched in the yard. There was a low door curtained by an animal skin; no windows could be seen. Smoke issued from a hole in the roof. The sky was gray and the weather cold. In the yard, small arrows of ice pointed every which way in puddles filled with slop.
“James, how can people live like this?”
“At least they have a roof. There are those who have none.”
Princess Star turned Silver from the path and rode up to the door. The voices inside grew quiet. Star pulled a gold coin from her purse and said, “I am William of Ossetsia. I bring greetings from afar.” She tossed the coin against the animal skin door. It made a dull clink and landed (gleaming) in the mud. “I leave a gift from the Southern Lands. Be well.”
James was astonished. “William, that’s more than these folk might see in a lifetime. Are all Ossetsians as generous as you?”
“Umm…of course they are!” said Star. “There are good people everywhere.”
They traveled in silence for a while then James said, “William, I notice you carry only Eulalian coins. What does Ossetsian currency look like?”
“Ossetsian currency? Oh, it’s very…colorful.”
“I meant metaphorically colorful, said Star. “There are pictures of camels and sand dunes and palm trees and scimitars with stars and moons engraved on them. You know…colorful!”
“Oh,” said James. They passed a few more primitive huts before reaching the center of Winchell’s Corner where a grand four-room mansion (with an actual second story) proclaimed the local…somebody. A sign above said “The Benbow Inn.” Star wasn’t sure what sort of gentry lived in these outlier districts, still, she gave a ringing hail. “Halloo! Is anyone home? We are travelers seeking shelter for the night.”