The days pass, and the princess spends them wandering around town, getting to know the people and asking questions about the sea. She learns about the tides, the creatures that live in the water–which are dangerous and which are tasty–and she learns about the art of beach combing. On the first day, she finds driftwood and takes it to a local fisherman.
“Is this of value?” she asks.
“Not to me, my lady, but all things have some use.”
On the second day, she finds a large shell and takes it to the inn keeper.
“What manner of beast did this come from?” she asks.
“A slimy one, but it makes a good stew!”
On the third day, she finds a dark glass bottle, corked, with paper inside. She takes it to the stable boy.
“Should we open this?” she asks.
“By all means!” He pulls the cork, shakes the paper out and hands it to her.
She reads: “Whosoever findeth this bottle, know ye that ’twas drunk at the wedding feast of King Hubert and the Lady Sarafina, long may they reign.”
“King Hubert ruled the southern lands a hundred years ago,” said the stable boy. “How long this bottle has been adrift!”
The princess nodded. “The sea is strange indeed.”
After eating, the princess and the stable boy go to catch up to the man in the feathered cap. He is not hard to spot, being so much better attired than any of the other townsfolk. He is talking to a group of young men standing near a small boat, and they are laughing. The stable boy clears his throat and calls, “Good morrow, sirs, what news have you for my lady and I?”
The men stop laughing, but continue to smile and trade looks. The man in the feathered cap bows low and says, “My lady and her companion, these lads are willing and able to fulfill your request. They begin immediately.” The young men step quickly into their boat and push off from the shore.
“Excellent news, sir, you have our thanks,” says the stable boy. “When do they return?”
The man with the feathered cap is staring at the princess. “Three days.”
The princess frowns and stares back. “So long a time…will the weather hold?”
“We can but hope, my lady.” He turns to leave.
“Wait, I feel I must thank you…” She turns to the stable boy. “Have you paid him?”
“No, highness,” he whispers back, “he prefers to wait until the job is complete, so he said.”
“I see.” She holds out her hand for the man to kiss. “We are grateful for your help, sir…?”
The man does not take the princess’ hand. Instead, he tips his hat, grins, turns quickly and walks away. “Three days,” he calls back over his shoulder.
After their meal, the stable boy tells the princess what he has learned. “They say that winter is surely coming early, and the seers predict a fierce snow,” he says.
“And what do they say of the sea? Shall the snow delay or deny me?”
“We’ve time, I think, my lady. Our purchase should be easy enough to make in this town on the morrow.”
At that, the princess is satisfied, and they each go to their separate rooms to sleep. At dawn the following day, the princess returns to the same table to break her fast, only to find that the stable boy is seated there already, talking with a strange man. He wears a large hat with a bright blue feather in it, which seems out of place to her. Do nobles live in such small towns by the sea? As she approaches, the man quickly takes his leave and disappears out the door. “Who was that?” she asks.
“Good morrow, highness! Forgive me, I did not see you,” the stable boy says, rising to pull out a chair for her. “That man has agreed to help us. Even now he goes to bargain with the fisher folk on your behalf.”
“Oh, good,” she replies, though her gut twists in knots.
At sunrise, the princess wakes the stable boy and tells him of the travelers as they hurriedly break their fast. “We’ll not catch up to them, your highness,” he says, “but surely we can catch their tale, or its like, in town.”
They ride on for the better part of that day, and just as they reach the town it begins to rain–cold, fat drops that quickly soak into their garments. The princess is oblivious to the weather, for now that they have reached the shore, she is confronted by the sea, the vast, unknown ocean she has sought. The sudden storm has turned the water greenish-gray, and driven all living things away in search of shelter. The waves crash against the ships tied up along the shore, making them rise and fall, looking to her like toys in a tub, and she laughs.
An inn across from the docks serves them well, stabling their horses and selling them hot food. The princess is still captivated by the sight of the sea, and she stares out of a window, while the stable boy moves around the room, chatting with the workaday folk and asking after the weather.
Neither of them notice the man in the far corner, who pulls his feathered cap down over his eyes and sinks low in his chair, trying very hard not to let anyone see him smile.
The stable boy constructs a lean-to for the princess and ties the horses up to a tree. He sits himself down with his back to her, and soon they both fall asleep.
Sounds of conversation drift over to them and the princess wakes, straining to hear the voices. Travelers on a nearby road are discussing the weather as they walk.
“…sooner this year, that’s what the seer in Hamilton said.”
“I don’t put faith in blind beggars. But right he may be all the same; I saw squirrels burying nuts before harvest was even finished.”
“Too bad we’ve no secret stash buried for ourselves. Say, since we’re throwing our lot in with the sea now, what harm comes to the fishing trade from snow?”
“Well, it was told to me thus…”
As the travelers make their way down the road, the princess frowns and gives up trying to get back to sleep. She wants to follow the two men and hear the rest of their chat. If winter is due early, and it is bad for sea creatures, her plan could be ruined.
The princess had never seen the sea beyond the mountains, and as her maid tells her tales of it, and of the creatures that swim beneath the waves, fly overhead, or crawl along its shore, she decides that she has to go.
“No, no,” says the maid, “surely you will be seen!”
But the princess is determined. She asks the cook to prepare provisions for her journey.
“No, no,” says the cook, “surely you will be robbed!”
But the princess is trained for combat and has no fear. She asks the stable boy to ready a mount.
“No, no,” says the stable boy, “surely you meant two mounts, for I am coming with you.”
The morning of her departure dawns cold and clear, and she and the stable boy ride out from the castle at a gallop. They head to a dark, rarely used pass through the mountains, which would lead them north and east, towards the sea. As the sun climbs higher, they remain in shadow, until reaching the summit of the pass, where a beautiful golden sky welcomes them. The morning has flown by, and they rest the horses while eating a spot of lunch themselves, then set out again to head down the mountain. This leg of the journey takes much longer. The land inside the ring of mountains is higher than the land outside the ring; the mountains are tall indeed, and by the time they reached the bottom the sun has set, and the world is dark.
When the leaves on the trees have all fallen off, the princess knows the time has come to draw up her plans for the following spring. She sits at a window, high in the north tower of her castle, and stares out across her kingdom. She has a small table beside her, with paper and a fresh quill, and her personal maid sits knitting on the other side of the small room. The two do not speak, but wait for inspiration to strike.
The princess goes over in her mind all the various campaigns she’s waged in the past: digging moats, building trebuchets that fling bags of dung, breeding strains of rabid rats to loose upon the roads… She knows that the princes who survive prepare themselves better each year, and that she cannot rely on the same tactics twice, so a new approach must be taken.
A bird flies by her window, and lands on a nearby parapet, holding something in its talons, which it proceeds to beat against the stones until it cracks open. The princess has never seen such a thing, and calls her maid over to look, too. “My lady,” she says, “that’s an oyster, from the sea beyond the mountains. The shells are quite hard, and the meat inside is most slimy and foul.”
The princess smiles.