Princess Star (as we all know, a real princess) and James (possibly the heir to the Breezy Hill Inn; possibly a stable boy, and possibly a big fat liar) were having an interesting morning. They were being polite. Very, very polite. Outwardly, it was a normal morning. The oddly-acquired charger, Silver, was ambling along in a peaceful state. (He’d really been a warhorse, but now he was just a big black horse looking for a soft bed of hay.) Star was at the reins; James was walking beside her. The morning was cold. A pale sun was giving off more light than heat. There was ice in the ruts of the road so everyone had to watch their footing. But neither Star nor James noticed the light, the chill, the icy ruts, or even Silver very much. Star and James were completely focused on, thinking about, consumed with, and solely paying attention to each other. (But acting like they weren’t, if you know what I mean.)
“Are you comfortable jogging along?” said Star. “You could hop on behind me…I mean on Silver, of course…I mean…well…do whatever you like.”
“No it’s fine, I’m fine. I feel great, actually. Just stretching my legs. Never felt better.”
“Okay,” said Star. “But if you get tired…”
“Most certainly,” said James. “No problem. I’ll be on in a flash…on the horse, I mean…you know…the two of us…riding along…holding you in my arms…boy, those hills ahead are starting to look bleak!”
They both pretended to look at the hills (which were bleak and growing bleaker). For the last week or so the deep, rich Eulalian forest had been turning into a thin, sparse Eulalian forest. Now even that was giving way to upland scrub: small, tough forbs twisted by the wind into shapes like leaping flames. The jagged peaks were growing taller and taller. Star saw a thin line trailing up the mountainside that looked like a fine hair from this distance and wondered if it could be the Black Steps. Silver’s hooves rang on stony ground. Beyond the pale sun, the sky was leaden gray. Just looking at the bleak mountains gave Star a shiver. She wished James would hop up behind her and put his arms around her. No! she thought. I have to forget last night…forget that kiss…forget that…other stuff…we both have to forget last night. I must keep thinking of William. I must keep to the Quest.
No, thought James. There’s no way I’m going to climb up behind this William of Ossetsia. No way! Although I’m sure Silver would be nice and warm to sit on. And my right leg is stiffening a bit. But I must stay focused on my mission! That’s why I’m here, after all.
“Are you sure you don’t want to ride?” asked Princess Star.
“Well, my leg is starting to ache a bit,” said James. He put a hand on Silver’s flank and nimbly hopped up behind Princess Star. She leaned back slightly. He put his arms around her. She leaned back a bit more. This is madness, thought James. But I was right, it is a lot warmer up here. It’s passing strange how the men of Ossetsia are so cuddly. I must be losing my mind.
Maybe I should tell him who I am, thought Star. She tried to remember why she thought that was such a bad idea. Oh, that’s right (she remembered); I can’t trust him!
“You said you were the heir to the Breezy Hill Inn and an expert in the hospitality industry?”
“Then why were you driving the honey wagon, surely a lowly task?”
He paused. “My parents wanted me to be well-rounded.” He gave her a little squeeze. “So they insisted I do every job in the inn at least once.”
“Oh,” said Star. “But why drive away with that thing? Couldn’t you get a horse?”
James hesitated. “It was a spur of the moment thing…a wild hair…a fling…an escapáde. Just a crazy adventure, really!”
“A fling with a wagonload of manure?”
Star played her ace. “I passed the sign for the Breezy Hill Inn. And you know what it said?”
“Umm…I forget,” said James.
“The Breezy Hill Inn. Proprietors: Belle and Dixie.”
“So ‘Belle’ and ‘Dixie’ are your ‘parents’?” asked Star. (She sounded downright skeptical).
“Oh, come on!” said Star.
They rode in silence as James searched for another strand of the tangled web he was attempting to weave. Finally he said, “I’m adopted.”
“Adopted?” (Star’s tone of voice said “Oh, come on!” but she didn’t want to repeat herself.)
“Yes…adopted…I was an orphan…a foundling…a babe in arms…I was dropped off in the dead of night at the grand entrance of the Breezy Hill Inn…right near the front lobby…I never knew my parents…Belle and Dixie took me in…but after that kindness they pretty much ignored me…I only had a desk clerk to teach me right from wrong…”
James lowered his head and tried his best to look like an orphan (or a duckling, or a little baby chick, or a cute little panda, basically anything in that line). This was pretty much lost on Star who (you will recall) was facing the other way.
“Oh, come on!” said Star again.
“I was an orphan and I really did work at the Inn. You know, there are many diverse occupations in an inn that size.”
“So what diverse occupation did you have?” asked Star.
Star looked back over her shoulder at the tall and very handsome youth with the well-knit limbs and said, “Now that I can believe!”
James blushed (a very charming blush) and then did the baby animal impression he’d been practicing. “I had to work my way up to stable boy. Miss Belle and Miss Dixie were both very particular about the care and feeding of their animals. You should have seen how they treated their chickens!”
“Hmmm,” said Star. (It was the type of “Hmmm” people make when they’re trying to get more information and being sneaky about it).
“Yes…” said James. (He fell for it!)
“…I was just a humble stable boy. And I really didn’t know Miss Belle and Miss Dixie all that well. Miss Belle ran everything. It seemed like she was everywhere at once like that guy in mythology. And Miss Dixie just stayed in her room. They said she was a natural philosopher.”
“So you made up that part about inheriting the Breezy Hill Inn?”
“Well, I could win a lot of money and buy it.”
“Hey, you never know.”
They both fell silent. Princess Star was trying to imagine someone leaving their baby in the grand entrance of an inn in the middle of nowhere. James was hoping this odd (and oddly attractive) duckling, William of Ossetsia, bought his story—or at least enough of it to quit asking questions (Star hadn’t). Because James’ real story could not be told. Ever. That had been drummed into him from day one. James could protect William of Ossetsia. He just couldn’t tell him why. All hell would bust loose, they said. Don’t do it, they said. You’ll be sorry, they said. And they meant it, he knew.
Star changed the subject. “Want to hear something funny! You know this amulet you gave me? It’s buzzing.”
Holy mackerel, thought James. He’s right! (His was buzzing, too. He hadn’t been paying attention.) James heard the instructions in his mind (as always) and leaped off Silver. Pulling the crossbow from his pack he shouted, “Wait here!”
Like heck I will, thought Star. She pulled her rapier and wheeled Silver around. James was flying down the Great Highway and was already around the bend. Star’s amulet was now giving off a pulsing buzz that reminded Star of a house fly: now closer, now further off. A weird sound. She didn’t like it.
“James! Wait!” she shouted. Then Star made a mistake. She turned Silver and dug in her heels–the horse leaped twenty feet in one bound. “Whoa!” yelled Star, but it was too late. Silver had forgotten about the bed of soft hay. He had recalled he was a war horse. His ears flattened and he charged, flying past James in a second. By the time Star got him turned around James was crouched in the road with the crossbow aimed at a dense tangle of blackberries.
“Come out,” he was saying. “Come out or I’ll shoot.”
(to be continued…)