The traveler crested a hill and paused to catch his breath, take in the scenery.
His boots were dusty and caked with mud. Sweat had soaked into the band of his hat and the fabric of his shirt; he yearned for a hot shower. He'd been traveling a long time, sometimes spending a few days, or weeks, or months in a village, but eventually moving on. He wasn't exactly sure what he was looking for, but he figured he'd recognize it when he saw it. On a few occasions, he'd briefly been convinced that he'd found it. He'd been wrong.
He still hadn't given up hope, though. He kept traveling.
This place looked promising. The meadows that stretched before him were brightened with unfamiliar flowers and fragrant shrubs. A few trees offered fruit and shade, and seemed designed specifically for picnics and napping on summer days. The road gently wound its way alongside a clear stream, to a village nestled around the base of a castle in the middle distance. The castle was decked with cheerful bunting and banners, and the village had a welcoming air.
He hoped he could find a place to shower there, but in the meantime, he bathed and rinsed his clothes in the cool water of the stream. Then he continued on to the village.
The villagers were friendly and hospitable. The traveler ate and drank quite well, and enjoyed the music and humor of various street performers. He enquired of a passer-by whether there were a special holiday as the reason for the festivities. "Oh no," the villager said. "The princess likes for there to always be entertainment on hand."
The traveler was intrigued. "Where might I meet this princess?"
"Oh, she comes out occasionally, when she can. I'm sure she'll be along soon, if you're in no hurry to leave."
He wasn't. He found a comfortable inn and took up residence, taking the opportunity to explore the village and the surrounding areas. In the course of his travels, he'd acquired a number of useful (and some less useful) skills, so he was able to pay his way by trapping vermin in the woods, juggling, telling fortunes, and even standing in for one or another of the innkeepers behind the bar once he'd earned their trust. He was a man of varied talents, the traveler.
On his fourth day in the village, it finally happened. He encountered the princess quite by accident, while he was practicing some new juggling tricks in an alley. An overly complicated maneuver proved beyond his reach, and his wooden pins clattered loudly to the street around him. Behind him, he heard clapping and delighted laughter. He turned, and found himself face to face with the princess.
Over the preceding days he'd asked everyone he met to tell him about the princess, to the point where it was almost possible to forget they hadn't yet been introduced. She was dressed much like the other villagers, with no particular feature marking her as any different... and yet, he recognized her immediately.
Her eyes twinkled. "I see you must be the new jack-of-all-trades I've been hearing about," she said. "Trying to acquire a new one? Or is pin-dropping the latest in entertainment where you're from? I'll admit I found it quite amusing."
The traveler felt himself blush. "Just proving to myself I'm not too old to learn some new tricks," he replied, wishing he'd managed a cleverer riposte. "I should think not!" she said lightly, and asked whether his practice had given him an appetite.
The two developed a fast friendship. The princess introduced the traveler to all her favorite spots in the village, and showed him the best trees for picnicking and napping. In turn, he tried to teach her to juggle (to no avail, she was hopeless, which made them both dissolve into laughter), told her all his best stories, and invented ridiculous names for the drinks he mixed for her at the bar. "The Sir Harvey Flutterbottom," he announced with a solemn flourish, as he served her a cup of murky brown liquid topped with an inch of grey foam and an incongruous cherry. She eyed it skeptically, as she always did. "Hmm," she hesitated, as she always did. "I don't know, this doesn't look the least bit appealing. I fear you've finally reached the limit of your talents." After a tentative sip, however, she pronounced it delicious, his best concoction yet. She always said that.
The traveler had begun to feel quite fond of the princess, and look forward to their frequent meetings. He often found himself thinking of things she might find amusing, or activities he thought she would enjoy. She occupied more and more of his thoughts. So, the first day she failed to appear at their agreed upon time, he was quite worried. When half an hour had passed, he stopped a young boy walking past their appointment spot whether he'd seen the princess that day.
"Nope," the youngster answered with a shrug. "Not today. But that happens a lot. Nothing to fret about."
But the traveler did fret. Should he contact her? Visit the castle, where he'd not yet been invited? When, several hours later, a messenger brought him a note with the princess's most profuse apologies, claiming a headache had caused her to miss their encounter, he surprised himself with the rush of relief that followed the news she was (more or less) well. In the note, she asked whether, if he could find it in himself to forgive her lapse in courtesy for failing to notify him of the change of plans in a timely manner, he would be willing to postpone their planned outing for a couple of days until she recovered. He scrawled an enthusiastic YES! at the bottom of the note itself, and sent it back to her by return courier. Then, he waited.