“Home?” said a voice. “Of course we’re home. Peanut, see who’s at the door.” Then in a quieter voice (but audible, making Star wonder if that’s the way he always got his point across). “It’s probably more of those damn Questers.”
The door opened a crack and a tiny, scrunched-up face peered up at them. The scrunched-up face belonged to a boy (or girl) somewhere around eight (or sixteen) years old. There were freckles. There was red hair. There was a voice like a flute. The girl (or boy) was wearing a long robe of jute, crudely woven. This small person’s feet were wrapped in rags. Not clean rags. Dirty rags. Rags you would never want to touch. Ever.
“Eh?” said the girl (or boy). “You Questers?”
James stepped around Star and Silver and announced, “We are travelers who seek to unravel the prophecy of the priests of the Sacred Spring, cure Prince William of his unnatural sleep, and marry the lovely and talented Princess Star.”
“I could have said that,” whispered Star. “It’s not all that original.”
“You forget I grew up in the hospitality industry, William of Ossetsia,” said James. “I have a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to these things.”
“Right!” said Star (through slightly clenched teeth). “When I met you, the first thing I noticed was the je ne sais quoi of your wagon.”
James glared. Star glared. “Yep, they’re Questers,” said the lad (or lass).
“Well, invite them in,” said the voice. “The Benbow Inn is famous for its hospitality.
“There have a horse, Sir Roddy.”
“Well then stable it! And don’t call me Roddy!”
Princess Star and James walked into a low-ceilinged room completely packed with squirrels. (Stuffed squirrels.) A china cabinet held twenty or thirty. Many were holding nuts in their little paws and had their heads tilted at coy or winsome angles. Others seemed to have been frozen in the act of scampering up a wall. One sat atop a lamp, a few peeked out from under a rocking chair. There were three (each successively smaller) stacked on top of one another like acrobats in the circus. Star saw squirrels suspended from wires, squirrels under glass, squirrels on the mantel, and squirrels lining the stairs to the second floor. Basically, there were a lot of squirrels.
“Squirrels!” said Star.
“Yes!” said Roddy looking around his den with obvious satisfaction. “I hate the little bastards. Killed and stuffed every one of them.”
“Oh?” said Star.
“Yes, and it’s Sir Roderick. It was King Bernardino of Eulalia that knighted me. For my service in the Ossetsian war.” He peered at them from under beetling brows. Sir Roderick was a short, fat, stumpy-legged man with a belly that protruded out and back in a big curve (like a question mark only upside down and backwards like this . He had a face like a squirrel with squirrel-gray hair, black squirrelly eyes and cheeks that puffed out like were full of nuts. His lips were small and thin. Star found herself hoping he didn’t have little pointy squirrel teeth. That, she thought, would be too much. (No, he just had regular teeth.)
“Eulalia had a war with Ossetsia?” said Star, honestly surprised. I’ve never heard of it.
“Of course there was a war. You probably weren’t even born yet!” Sir Roderick had a way of talking that was starting to really bother Star. (He talked as if his listeners were idiots, or nuts, or just plain stupid, and he shouldn’t really waste his time talking to them (and it was a complete waste of time) but he would do it anyway because he was so good—even though they were so stupid.)
James (who was starting to know William of Ossetsia better than William of Ossetsia realized) saw a few warning signs and decided to jump in. “Well, that war must have been a long time ago…ancient history…water under the bridge…and more water over the dam…no use living in the past, I say…live and let live….”
“It was ten years ago,” snapped Roderick.
“Nonsense,” Star snapped back. “There was no war with Ossetsia ten years ago!” Then as Sir Roderick began to puff up (he looked like an angry squirrel) she added, “Poppycock!”
“How do you know?” Sir Roderick challenged.
“I’m…Prince William of Ossetsia,” said Star. “And they make us learn history.” (Her tone wasn’t much better than Roderick’s. It said: So There! You Squirrel-Stuffing Dope!)
Just then Peanut stuck his (or her) head into the room and said, “Bring yer bags?” which Star took to mean the offer of a valet service (while James just shuddered at the lack of professionalism).
“When did you receive your knighthood?” she asked.
Sir Roderick squirmed and looked perturbed (kind of like a squirrel with a bad nut). “It was, uh, a few years back, not that long, I don’t remember the exact date…”
“Where’s your royal proclamation?”
“It’s in a closet somewhere.”
“And your armor?”
“It’s in the shop.”
James stepped in. He knew William of Ossetsia could be a little intense, but this was getting out of hand. “How much for a room, he asked.”
“I only have a double. It’s two Eulalian crowns.”
“That’s highway robbery,” said Star. “Every Eulalian knight takes ten vows. Name three!”
“We’ll take it,” said James. “Come, William of Ossetsia. Let us leave Sir Roderick to his squirrels and his ease.”
“Squirrels,” muttered Star. (When she was angry, she muttered.) “Knight! Ha!”
Sir Roderick glowered. Star glowered. “So you’re going on a Quest?” said the (probably) bogus knight. “Do you want to know how many Questers have already come through Winchell’s Corners?”
“No!” said Star. (But she really did.)
“We’ve had more than five hundred come through town.” (Sir Roderick kind of sneered.) And all planning on climbing up Black Steps to the Black Gate and skipping gaily into Terra Incognita. You want to know what I tell ‘em?” he asked.
“No!” said Star. (But she really did.)
“I tell ‘em, ‘You’ll never make it! Winter is icumen in! You’re all a bunch of fools. And the base of the Black Cliffs is littered with the bones of fools!’”
Star couldn’t hold back. Before James could stop her (or even utter four or five good platitudes such as “Handsome is as handsome does, or “It is what it is”) Star drew her rapier and charged at the startled and (let’s face it) bogus knight. “Sir Roderick! As a Prince of Ossetsia and a member of the royal family, I challenge thee to a duel.” (She actually said “thee” which was going a bit far, but there you go.) And then she advanced on the now-trembling, short, fat, stumpy-legged, fake knight.
“My sword is in the shop,” he squeaked. “You can stay for free! I’ll comp you the room!
Star waved the rapier under the spurious knight’s nose. “On your feet, varlet!” (Star was basically going nuts at this point, but in her favor, she was a princess of Eulalia and it was a pretty big deal to claim to be a knight when you weren’t. It was a crime, actually.)
“Hold up a minute, William of Ossetsia,” said James. He grabbed Star by the arm and pulled her back (thinking: wow, guys from Ossetsia don’t have much in the bicep department…I wonder if they’ve even heard of weight training) and said, “William, he’s comping us the room! That’s a pretty good deal.”
Star knew it was, but she was really steamed. She turned and kicked a squirrel (one of the ones with a nut in its paws and its head tilted in a winsome way) and sent it flying across the room where it knocked down two other squirrels. “Fine!” she said. “Let’s go!”
“I’ll throw in towels!” said Roderick who had begun a general sort of trembling.
“Pah!” said Star (who was really working the archaic-language thing). She stomped up the stairs (she was small but she could stomp pretty hard) which caused the squirrels on each step to bounce like bobble heads.
Roderick called after her, “Room Two.” Then in a lower tone, “Check-out’s at eleven.”
“Well that’s more than fair,” said James, trying to cheer Star up. “I wonder if we have a nice view.”
Turns out, they didn’t. One of the requirements for a “view” is a “window” and this room didn’t have one. It did have a large sagging bed with an eighteen-inch border around it, the border being what constituted “the room.”
(to be continued…)