Grace put her head in her hands. She could solve this problem. Of course she could. There was always a solution. She just had to think it through. But her stomach felt like rocks had settled in it and her throat felt tight.
“I’m sorry to bother you, miss, but…”
Grace straightened so quickly that she nearly knocked the cup the old woman was extending toward her out of her hand.
The woman pulled it back quickly, but extended it again as soon as Grace was still. “I believe you might need this.”
“Yes.” The old woman’s eyes were kind, her voice soothing. “It will help you.”
Grace’s eyes narrowed. “Help me how?” Her tone was unfriendly. The old woman might seem innocent enough, but Grace didn’t know her. And she had no reason to trust strangers. Not here.
The cup was a simple thing; plain white, but sturdy. The liquid inside it was a murky brown. The old woman pushed it a couple inches closer to Grace. “A warm drink always helps, doesn’t it?”
“Why do you think I need help?” Grace asked, but her hand lifted to take the cup.
“Oh, my dear.” The woman chuckled as she released the cup into Grace’s hand. “That man with you?”
“My father.” Grace stared into the depths of the liquid. It was dense, absorbing the light. She took a sniff. Nothing she recognized. Not floral, not fruity.
“He wasn’t exactly quiet,” the woman said. “Why I bet everyone on the square heard him scolding you. Not to mention your arrival. It was rather loud.”
“Was it?” Grace’s hand tightened on the cup. She could feel the heat of the drink through the smooth material. It felt nice against her palm. Comforting.
“Quite loud,” the woman confirmed. “Like an explosion. And then all that smoke. A bit messy, don’t you think?”
“I didn’t really have much to do with it,” Grace admitted. “That was all him.” She looked around her. She hadn’t paid much attention to where her father had dumped her. He’d been angry enough that she’d been focused on him.
It wasn’t even her fault. Not really. Oh, sure, she had let that adventurer into the castle, but it had been cold outside. She couldn’t just let him freeze, could she?
Well, she could have. And she should have. But she’d been bored silly. It felt like winter had gone on forever and she’d been so sick of the snow and its eternal sameness. A stranger showing up had been a change.
And she hadn’t let him in because he was cute. Her father had been totally wrong about that. Sure, the adventurer was cute — Sam, his name was Sam. Sam was cute but it was not like Grace had known that when she let him in. He’d been all bundled up in layers and layers of winter clothes. She’d only discovered that he was cute when he’d warmed up enough to shed a few of his coats.
And it was so not her fault that Sam had gone exploring after she’d let him use the bathroom. What should she have done? Told him to pee in the corner, like he was a dog that wasn’t housebroken? Her father wouldn’t have appreciated that, either.
And how could she have anticipated that Sam would find the library? Well, maybe she could have predicted that. It was only two doors away from the bathroom, after all, and when she’d shown him where the bathroom was, the door to the library had been open, with the giant Book of Days open on a pedestal in the middle of the room. Maybe she could have guessed that it would look too interesting to resist.
Still, she hadn’t planned on letting Sam read the Book of Days. It wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t like she’d done anything wrong on purpose. She hadn’t deliberately disobeyed her father. She knew she wasn’t allowed to touch the book. And she hadn’t! Letting Sam touch it, well, her father had never explicitly told her that no one was allowed to read the book. Sure, maybe she could have extrapolated that if she wasn’t allowed to touch it, no guests would be allowed to touch it either.
But it’s not like they ever had any guests.
Really, it was her father’s fault. If he’d invited people to the castle now and then, like a civilized wizard, then maybe she would have known the rules for visitors.
But now this. She was sitting on the edge of a fountain in the middle of what looked like a major tourist trap. Cute little houses, cute little shops. It must be one of those historic recreation places. Like a Renaissance Faire, only not.
But as Grace spotted people peering out of windows at her, the rocks in her stomach sank even lower. The people didn’t look right.
Well, they didn’t look too wrong. Not like aliens or anything. They were normal people. But they didn’t look like the cheerful shopkeepers of a highly-profitable vacation destination. They looked like… shopkeepers of a small town in the middle of nowhere.
In the middle of no-when.
“What year is it?” she asked the old woman.
“Year? What do you mean?” The old woman looked confused.
“Year? Like, um, year of our lord, something or other, like that?”
“I don’t know what you mean, child. Perhaps you should speak to the priest?”
Grace bit her lip. Uh-oh. This was very bad news.
“Except…” The woman cleared her throat. Her glance around the square was almost a glare. “Except you might not want to do that.”
Grace followed her gaze. There weren’t lots of people, just a few. A sturdy man with a big red nose wearing a heavy apron, stained with splatters that looked like blood. A woman, hair pulled stringently back, wearing a less heavy apron sprinkled with flour. A lanky kid, taller than the woman, leaning over her shoulder. An old man, perched on a stump by a door…