It was still there.
Emily looked in the small, filthy mirror by the water basin. She had taken off her gown when she got up, and her fingers had found the metal band encircling her neck.
It was still there.
She could have sworn she had dreamed it. It seemed completely impossible. No Wanderer's tale or Bard's song or Sage's story that she knew told of a ring of silver appearing on someone's neck while she slept.
Her fingers explored the collar, looking for a latch or a seam or anything at all. There was nothing. It was, as far as she could tell, a single, solid piece of metal. It wasn't tight to her neck, it didn't affect her breathing, but there was no way it could slip over her head. Loose enough that she could slip her little finger between the ring and her skin, but not comfortably.
She looked in the mirror again. She supposed that it did bring out her eyes, some, although it was hard to tell. She wondered if she ought to have been more concerned, but even though she was certain the collar hadn't been there the night before, it still felt... comfortable. Curiously so. Familiar, even. She pulled on her long skirt, and checked the mirror again.
She closed her eyes, jammed her hands into her hips, took a deep breath.
She opened her eyes.
It was still there.
This was obviously unusual.
As a Wanderer, Emily had seen some strange things in her travels, been subject to some strange dealings herself, but even as she scoured her memories, she couldn't come up with anyone who might have put a collar on her, or any reason they would.
She pulled her shirt over her head, adjusted herself, and checked the mirror again. There was no question that the metal band would be plainly visible. She considered a scarf, but in the summer heat that would have been uncomfortable, and certainly wouldn't have drawn attention away from the area.
Magic, then? She didn't know anything to make apparel vanish, and anyway she wasn't much of a practitioner. A few tricks useful for entertaining the children she was caring for, mainly, on top of the usual charms most Wanderers knew for health and well-being, and the Shifting Ritual—although she had just arrived in this place a month ago, she wanted to stay a while.
She saw nothing more to do, then, but to live with it. Accept it, go downstairs and get her breakfast, walk the two miles to the manor home, teach and care for the children, all while wearing her new accessory, like it was the most normal thing in this or any other world she'd visited.
Pretend it's nothing special. Be honest if questioned. She was expected, after all, and had a schedule to keep.
Emily slipped her canvas shoes on her feet and padded downstairs. Two of the other guests were sitting in the common dining room, eating gruel: the tall, dark-skinned mercenary who hadn't said more than a dozen words to her in the week he'd been there sat by the door, and much nearer the kitchen was a woman that Emily didn't recognize, perhaps someone who'd come in the night before.
The young woman looked up at Emily as she came in, blue eyes bright. "Are you the Wanderer?" she asked.
Emily laughed and sat down with her at the table. "I'm a Wanderer. I go by Emily most of the time, though."
"It's great to meet you, Emily!" She hurriedly wiped a bit of oatmeal from her mouth. "I'm Lessia, I'm Harban's niece."
"I suppose I'd better behave myself," Emily replied. "Sitting with the owner's family."
"Oh that's not strictly necessary," Lessia giggled.
"I assure you, Miss Emily, it is," Harban, the tall dark-haired housekeeper, came in to the hall from the kitchen with a bowl of gruel. "My sister would have me strung up if anything were to happen to her daughter." They shot their niece a look Emily couldn't read, but Lessia seemed to know what it meant, as she flushed in embarrassment.
"Sounds like I'm not the only one who needs to behave." Emily smiled gently as Harban placed the thin cereal in front of her.
Harban paused, looking at Emily. "New accessory?"
Emily flushed, and her hand self-consciously went to her neck. "Uh. That's a story."
"I hear Wanderers like to tell stories," Lessia said, leaning in. Harban, too, was still standing nearby, clearly listening.
"We do," Emily replied, taking a spoonful of her breakfast. Somehow Harban managed to make the simplest meals delicious.
Lessia and Harban waited expectantly.
Emily sighed. "No avoiding it, I guess, huh."
"My hospitality does demand satisfaction," Harban replied, crossing their arms in front of their apron.
"The money I give you isn't enough?"
Lessia giggled. "Once Harban's curious, you're stuck."
Emily took another spoonful of gruel. "The truth is," she said after swallowing, "that there's not a whole lot to tell. I woke up last night from a dream and..." She shrugged. "There it was."
"What was the dream?" Lessia asked, clearly intrigued.
Emily tried to hide her blush behind another bite of breakfast. "I'm... still trying to sort that out. It's a bit of a jumble." She could see that Lessia accepted that response, and that Harban, perhaps more worldly, did not, but they didn't press the issue.
"Well what about the Sage?" Lessia asked. "Maybe he can help you make sense of it?"
The Sage lived past the manor house, through the forest, and halfway up a mountain. Like most Sages Emily had heard of, this one was as inaccessible as possible. In the month she'd been here, she'd picked up a few rumours, but nothing conclusive other than his particular location.
"I've never had great luck with Sages," Emily said. It was true enough. She'd never actually met a Sage, despite having tried a few times. Her bowl was half-finished, and she was starting to worry about the time. She did have a long walk ahead of her.
"Few have," Harban replied. "Pardon me, I have to clean the kitchen. Lessia..." Harban gave their niece a warning look, which she casually ignored.
"I'm not busy today," the bright-eyed young woman said. "I could walk you to the manor."
Emily heard Harban sigh as they walked back into the kitchen. "I'm not sure that Harban would give permission."
"Harban doesn't get to tell me what to do," Lessia said defiantly, loud enough to be heard. "Besides, if you don't let me walk with you, I'll just follow behind you."
"She will," Harban said from the kitchen. "She absolutely will."
Lessia giggled, and Emily, working to finish her meal, couldn't help but share a smile. "I suppose that you might as well come with, then. Do you like children?"
"So long as they're not related to me, sure." Lessia nods.
"Well, if you have nothing better to do..."
"I'll be back in ten minutes," Lessia said, getting up from the table and bolting for the door.
Emily suddenly found herself alone in the dining hall. At some point, the quiet mercenary had slipped out. She took advantage of the silence to devour her gruel, thinking about the company she'd be keeping shortly.
She stood in the morning sun just outside the rooming house. It was a gorgeous day. Birds were singing, there was a cool breeze in the air.
Emily waited patiently for Lessia, her pack on her shoulder, ready for the hike up to the manor home. The enthusiasm of the innkeeper's niece was charming, even a bit infectious. Her hand went to the silver band around her neck, and her thoughts to the dream of the crystal palace in the snow.
Though she hadn't been cold in the dream, she shivered in the warm summer sun, remembering the image.
"There's a saying, around here," Harban said from the doorway, startling Emily out of her reverie. "About Wanderers and their dreams."
Emily turned to look at the tall innkeeper. "Oh? What is it?"
"That only Wanderers should follow them." Harban's expression was composed, calm. "We haven't had a Wanderer come from this place in a long, long time. Not since I can remember, and that's near fifty years. Few come to this world, too. We live under a strange star, it seems."
"I like the strange stars," Emily said with a smile. "They have the most lovely strange people."
Harban's expression cracked. "Just bear well in mind that here, you're the strange one, Wanderer. And my niece may have been overwhelmed by your strangenesses."
Emily nodded. "She would not be the first. I'll be careful with her."
"Or perhaps Lessia will be the first in several generations to leave," Harban said, turning back into the rooming house. "This would not be the worst outcome." They paused there. "Provided she comes back."
Emily idly played with the ring on her left thumb that anchored her to her home. "All Wanderers always return."
"Some take far too long." Harban headed back inside.
Lessia came barrelling down the road then. "Emily!" she called, waving frantically. "Sorry I'm late!" Her grey dress fluttered around her legs as she ran. "My mother insisted on sending lunch with me."
Emily laughed. "I know the feeling, my mother did the same for my first departure."
"Departure?" Lessia asked, pausing to take a breath. "Oh! You mean the... first time you..."
"Yes, when I became a Wanderer."
"Your mother packed a lunch?"
Her mother had packed more for her to take on her first departure than she now kept in living supplies. "Something like that."
"So!" Lessia said with a cheerful grin. "Off to the manor house?"
Emily nodded, starting down the road at a brisk pace. "It's where I'm earning my keep."
"Why do you work there?"
"I care for children. Something I'm good at. And there's a need here, too. I can see that the wars were not kind to this world."
"Wars weren't kind to any world, they tell me," Lessia replied, half-jogging to keep up. "I guess they sort of aren't in general, right?"
"That's right. I try to stay away from places where wars are happening. That's more for Bards, anyway. Epic tales of armies clashing and all that."
"Yeah, good idea." Lessia wasn't out of shape, but she was puffing in her efforts to keep up with Emily.
Emily unconsciously slowed her pace a bit. "Not that many wars left anyway. The Great Law came down pretty hard."
Lessia nodded, let out a sigh and took a deep breath. "What's the most dangerous place you've been?"
"Hm..." Deliberately? Emily thought to herself, remembering a particularly exciting expedition where she'd been tied up by two young bandits and... No, that's not the story you tell this girl. "Probably when I landed unexpectedly in front of a Grey slaver and got myself frozen."
"A slaver?" Lessia gasped, wide-eyed. "How did you get away?"
"Didn't," the Wanderer explained. "I served half a year in a Grey ship galley, bought my freedom and kept going."
Emily nodded. "Greys don't keep slaves all that long, really. In terms of the slave-keepers out there, they're probably the best. Doesn't mean they're not immoral monsters about it, they're just the least awful." She touched her taut stomach, just above her navel. "That's where the blast hit me as soon as I landed. It was sudden, and I felt like I wanted to flinch, you know like if you get an elbow in the gut?"
Lessia nodded, rapt.
"You understand. But I didn't flinch at all. I wanted to. My whole body tried to move and I just... couldn't. And the place where I got hit got cold. Colder than I'd ever felt, ever in my life, before or since. It spread out from that spot, up and..." she swallowed. "Down. And around. From knees to shoulders, front and back, I felt like I was just dipped in ice."
"Wow," Lessia said. "I've never seen a Grey, or a slaver, or even heard of anything like that."
"Well, most Greys aren't slavers, at least. And the freeze blast wasn't the worst thing I've ever experienced. Once it got up to my head, everything just went... uh, it's kind of hard to explain, but it was like sleep but a lot deeper. There were no dreams, no time passing, just sort of this... endless cold."
Lessia shivered. "Sounds awful."
"I know, but... it wasn't," Emily replied. "I know it sounds terrible, but it was actually really, really nice. Even with how much I hate the cold most of the time." Except in my dreams, she added silently. "I think they designed it that way just to make their captives more compliant when they let us out."
Lessia thought about that for a moment. "That makes some sense, sure. If you woke up miserable then you wouldn't want to do what they want you do."
"Mhmm, and I got bought almost right away, so I didn't spend a whole lot of time in storage. Maybe I would have felt different if I did."
"Storage?" Lessia sounded shocked.
"Sure, they have to put us somewhere until we're put to work, right?" Emily grinned. "They won't keep anyone more than two years, whether it's for storage or work. I think they signed some treaty or something with the Council that lets them keep doing what they do..." She shrugs. "The politics of all this is a little much for me. I just like travelling."
"So, wait, you said you worked half a year..." Lessia's mind. "But you got bought right away?"
"Yeah, I was in storage for a couple weeks, then I got bought to work in the galley, and I got some extra work as a storyteller, and then made a couple... arrangements." Emily chuckled.
Lessia giggled. "You didn't."
"Hey, sometimes you can get paid to do something you like." Emily turned to her companion and winked. "And to be honest, it's not as tawdry as I make it sound, it was more like a gift from someone I was already having a good time with."
"That sounds like an amazing story, Emily, thanks for sharing it with me." Lessia huffed. "I know it's a custom to give a Wanderer something for a story..."
"You can owe me," Emily assured her magnanimously. "Besides, I can accept your company as a payment."
"Doesn't seem like enough."
"Trust me," Emily said with a smile. "Sometimes company is the best payment. Although I won't object if you give me something."
"Alright," Lessia replied.
The two women walked a while in silence.
"How have you liked it here?"
"This world, this manor, how do you like it?"
Emily paused a moment. "It's been lovely, really. One of the quietest places I've been in a long time, even with the war-scars. Everyone's really nice, and the work is good for me."
Lessia hesitated. "Do you think you'd want to stay?"
Emily laughed kindly and shook her head. "Some Wanderers settle down when they get older, but I'm nowhere near that point. I might be here until winter, but I don't think much longer than that. Still, the rest is nice."
"You must get a lot of excitement." Lessia sounded more than a little excited herself.
"Every world is a new adventure." Part of The Wanderer's Creed, it comes to Emily naturally as a reply.
Emily nodded. "It can be. It can be dangerous. It can be ... disappointing, a lot of the time. Most places aren't going to hurt strangers, especially Wanderers, but... well, you can run into Grey slavers, or other things like them. And just because almost all sentient life out there is going to follow the Great Law and not intentionally kill you, that's not going to stop a random bear."
"A random what?"
"A... a bear. Don't you have bears? Bigger than a..." Emily thought. What point of reference did she have to share? "They're big black or brown shaggy four-leggers with nasty claws and teeth, some larger than a full-grown cow."
Lessia was clearly working to make sense of what she was being told. Then she shook her head. "Sounds like a dragon or a sea monster or something else impossible."
Emily grinned. "Impossible? I've seen all three."
Lessia laughed. "You're joking."
Emily shook her head. "Went to a sleeper world with a dragon caretaker, once."
"A dragon? Really? Big scaly fire-breathing lizard?"
"They're not as big as you'd expect. Or maybe just this one wasn't. About my height when he was on all fours, and maybe twice that in length?" Emily explained. "Scaly, yes. Fire-breathing, not that I saw, but perhaps. I wasn't there long, and it's not like we were fighting."
Lessia was impressed, though still clearly skeptical. "Wow. Okay, so what's a 'sleeper world'?"
Emily and Lessia both paused to wave at a passing patrol heading out from the manor to the village. "I guess that's a Wanderer term. Some places were so badly scarred that they're just ... unlivable, I guess. When a world gets like that, there's a few things they can do, but if it's bad enough, one of the easiest things they can do is just put everyone to sleep until the world heals, or until they can evacuate."
"So... something like when you were frozen?"
Emily nodded. "Greys have actaully helped some worlds with that sometimes, built massive people-storage facilities. I've been to three sleeper worlds, but I haven't seen one of those yet."
"And one of those had a dragon," Lessia reminded her.
"Dragon caretaker, yes," Emily replied. "I stayed with him a little more than a week, but there really wasn't much to do. We played a few games of chess. The population was just standing around in a time loop, and the world was mostly a desert. Not a lot of fun, really."
"I dunno, that sounds like fun," Lessia says. "A dragon, I mean! And everyone in a... I'm sorry, I have too many questions." She giggles. "I've just never met a Wanderer, and you have so many stories! I'm gonna end up owing you everything I own!"
Emily laughed. "It doesn't really work like that. I don't keep a balance sheet. It's just a tradition."
"Supposed to be good luck, though, right?" Lessia looked down at her hands and bit her lip. "Plus I wanna keep hearing your stories."
"Then I can just keep talking," Emily said. "The children love stories, too. I usually tell them one or two to get them to settle. Of course, I exaggerate some of the details, and downplay others."
"Oh yeah? What do you downplay?"
Emily was a little surprised by the question and found herself blushing. "Those... details that might bother younger children. Don't want them hearing too much about fighting and violence, you know."
Lessia's smile suggested that perhaps she knew a little more about the sort of details Emily might be hiding from the children. "Of course, those details. Kids just hate stories of fighting and violence."
Emily laughed through her embarrassment. "Okay, yes, I have a few stories that might be completely inappropriate for the young ones."
Emily shook her head. "Not right now. Maybe later." There was a slight lull. "Why do you want to know?"
Lessia shrugged, idly plucking a leaf off a tree. "Nothing ever changes, you know?" She frowns. "There's bursts of excitement every so often, but we live in a little bubble of a world and it's not really that interesting once you get to know it. The people are all the same. It's peaceful and quiet, which is fine for mother or Harban or most people I guess."
"But not you."
"You must have heard that a few times," Lessia laughed. "And I'm not the only one who says it."
"It's a pretty common sentiment, yes." Emily nodded.
"Really common around here," Lessia says. "Either you like this world or you don't. And after growing up to stories about all the different things out in the stars, I just wa—uh, I'm just really curious."
I just want to go travelling, Lessia had been about to say. Emily had been sure of it. And no doubt her mother or Harban (or both) had warned her about pestering the Wanderer about it too much.
She decided to commiserate. "That was me, growing up. But my mother's a Wanderer, too, so I got to see a few safer worlds before I made the jump myself."
"Is that how you do it? Kind of an apprenticeship?"
Emily nodded. "In part, yes. Being able to take a few quick journeys with my mother first helped, but there's other ways." She took a chance. "Why so curious?"
Lessia didn't answer right away, looking at the leaf in her hand. After a moment or two, she gave the answer that Emily knew she would. "I want to travel. Like you do."
Emily chuckled. "Say that to Harban, and I might have to travel fairly quickly."
"I won't tell him, then."
They crested a familiar hill and the manor house came into view, still a half-mile down the road. "Don't tell the children either," Emily warned. "That's a definite rule. Little ones pick up ideas, and if they do, I get in trouble for it."
Lessia grinned. "Maybe that's how I can pay you back?"
Emily snickered. "Blackmail? I give you stories or you make my stay here miserable with angry parents?"
"How about, I'll keep my mouth shut, if you'll keep feeding me stories? Then it's bribery, not blackmail."
"That's not better, you realize."
"I believe, Miss Emily," Lessia responded in a gravelly impression of Harban, "that it was you who said she had to behave."
The two women broke down in laughter, standing by the roadside.
"What does Harban say about your imitation?" Emily asked as she recovered.
"They suffer it with good grace," Lessia replied. "Like they do most things."
"They do seem to be resilient."
The two caught their breaths and started to walk again.
"How are you going to explain your collar?" Lessia asked.
Emily paused to think. "Perhaps if I say nothing, no one will notice?"
Lessia snickers. "That seems more impossible than your dragon."
"That clear, is it?" Emily runs her fingers along the front of the collar. "I can almost forget it's there, myself."
"It suits you, though, if I might say so," Lessia says. "It seems like something you might have put on yourself. Goes nicely with your eyes, accents your collarbone." She mirrored Emily's motion. "I'm a bit jealous."
"That I have some sort of magical secret admirer?" The Wanderer blushed a bit.
"Well no one's ever given me silver."
"I think I'd prefer to receive it a bit more traditionally, not just waking up with it around my neck." Emily sighed. "So to answer your question... I don't know. I guess I'll figure that out when someone asks me about it."
Lessia bit her lip. "Sounds like a challenge."
Emily raised her fists like she was about to take a swing at an invisible opponent. "I'm up to it."
Lessia cheered good-naturedly and laughed. "I have to see this, you know."
"Just got to see more of a Wanderer's storytelling?"
"Who could resist?"
"More people than you'd expect."
Lessia scoffed. "Boring people."
Emily couldn't help but smile. "A lot of boring people make the worlds go around. If not for them, the Wanderers couldn't do what we do."
There was a little lull in the conversation.
"It's not the silver I'm jealous of, not really," Lessia said, finally, as they approached the final hill up to the manor. "It's... well..."
Emily nodded. "I get it. My life is—"
"Not just your life, Emily, but..." Lessia flushed. "Sorry, that's not appropriate, I won't... I'll just be quiet."
Emily smiled kindly. "You've been a lovely companion for this trip, and I look forward to forging a friendship with you over my time here, if you'll let me."
"That sounds like a gentle rejection," Lessia said. She couldn't keep a bit of her disappointment from her voice.
"Did it?" Emily asked. "Because it wasn't."
The two of them stood at the entrance to the manor for a moment. "Something to discuss later, I imagine?" Lessia said.
Emily nodded. "Certainly. Let's go do some good."