Even before she left for Clock Town, Cremia knew that she was about to make a big mistake. She had seen the storm clouds gathering the night before, and now the rain came down in torrents. It would be dry inside the covered wagon, she told herself, although that didn’t matter from her position in the driver’s seat. With all of the trouble that Romani Ranch had experienced lately, she couldn’t afford to miss a milk delivery. They needed the money badly.
“Please, sister? Romani wants to go too!”
Cremia sighed. Normally, she would have said no, but she didn’t like the thought of leaving her little sister alone on the ranch in such weather. Grog could look after the cows just as well as he looked after the Cuccos. “Alright,” she said to Romani, “Grab your shawl and come back down right away. The sooner we leave, the better chance we have of getting home before the roads flood.”
“Yes, Cremia!” her sister replied cheerfully, bouncing up the steps to their shared bedroom.
By the time they set out, the road had turned into a patchwork quilt of mud and deep puddles. Cremia told herself that everything was fine. Puddles always formed during a rainstorm. They could still make it to Clock Town and back safely.
At least, they would make it back safely if Romani sat inside the wagon and behaved .
“Romani wants to steer!”
Cremia jerked the reins away from her sister, which startled the donkey and caused him to bolt forward into the wooded area between Milk Road and Termina Field. “Romani, stop it! You’re not old enough to drive the wagon yet.” She pulled the reins to stop the donkey and Romani fell back into the wagon. Cremia waited to catch her breath. By now, the rain had drenched her completely; her clothes stuck to her skin and she had to continuously wipe water from her eyes so that she could see.
“Romani is old enough!” her sister protested from inside the wagon.
“Does Romani want to come with me the next time I go into town?”
“If you want to prove that you’re old enough to drive the wagon, then first you need to prove that you’re old enough to take the trip into town.”
After that, Romani fell silent. They cleared the last trees and made it through the field to Clock Town. Cremia ordered Romani to stay within the shelter of the wagon while she made all of the deliveries.
By the time they finished their rounds in East Clock Town, Cremia finally had to admit to herself that they might be in trouble. The winding steps and the adjacent ramp that curved up and around West Clock Town looked more like twin waterfalls gushing down to meet them. She would never be able to get the wagon through it, even if the donkey felt willing to try. So, instead she pulled back around to the town square, hopped out, and began unloading the milk jugs. If she had to make the deliveries on foot in the pouring rain, so be it.
“Hey, there, wait a minute!” Bremor, one of the local carpenters, jogged across the square toward the wagon. “You can’t do that all on your own, Miss Cremia!”
Cremia pushed her bangs out of her eyes so that she could see better. They stayed plastered to the side of her head. “I don’t want to, but I have to. Would you be willing to watch my sister while I make my deliveries?”
Instead, Bremor whistled for his fellow workers and they all carried the milk jugs through West Clock Town. Cremia’s protests went ignored, and she couldn’t deny that it made the job easier. So, after thanking them over and over again, she resorted to directing them in regards to which stores and homes they should visit.
At last, the work was done. But if the streets in town were already flooding, Cremia could only imagine what the forest road looked like. “I’m sorry, Romani, but it looks like we’ll have to spend the night here.”
Romani clapped her hands together and laughed. “Hooray! Romani has never stayed outside the ranch before!”
At least she is enjoying herself , thought Cremia. All that remained would be to find a place to stay. There weren’t many options available to them. Most of the people in town lived above the businesses that they operated. However, she did know one person who would want to help, assuming that she had any rooms left to spare.
With a flick of the reins, Cremia steered the wagon back towards East Clock Town, the location of the Stock Pot Inn. Romani soon realized where they were headed and bounced up and down. “We’re going to stay with Anju’s family, aren’t we? Will Kafei be there too?”
Cremia’s cheeks flushed for just a moment. “Maybe. I don’t know. He probably wants to stay home with his family in this weather.”
“Romani hopes that Kafei does come! We can hear stories from Anju’s grandmother and peek through the doors to see what the other guests are doing!”
“No, Romani, that’s rude,” Cremia scolded.
“It’s not rude to listen to Anju’s grandmother’s stories.”
“You know what I mean.”
It took some effort to open the front door with the strong winds blowing around the two sisters, and it slammed shut just as they stepped over the threshold. Anju, who stood behind the receptionist’s desk, jumped when she heard the loud noise.
“Cremia! Romani! What brings you here?” she asked warmly.
“The storm,” said Cremia, “We won’t be able to get the wagon back to the ranch in these conditions. Could we spend the night here?”
“Of course! It’s been such a long time since you stayed here! This will be fun!” Anju came around to the other side of the desk and led them up to the second floor. “It’s a good thing the Carnival of Time is next month or we wouldn’t have had the room.” She took a key out of her apron pocket to unlock one of the first rooms at the top of the stairs. It had two small beds and a fire in the fireplace. “You sit here and I’ll get you both some warm clothes,” Anju instructed.
With a happy sigh, Cremia collapsed on the floor and put her hands as close as she could to the fire without getting burned. Romani decided to bounce on her bed. Water droplets shook out of her hair and sprayed across the room; some of them flecked the back of Cremia’s head. She decided to ignore it.
After Anju came back with some fresh clothes, as promised, Romani asked, “Can Romani go visit with your grandmother, Anju?”
“Yes, as long as she’s not napping.”
“Yay!” Romani skipped out of the room.
Cremia relished in the warmth of the new dress and getting to peel off the one that was still dripping water all over the floor. Anju sat down on Romani’s bed. “So,” she asked, once her friend was all settled, “Why did you come here in the first place? You must have known that the weather would be bad.”
“Well…” Cremia hesitated. If anyone else had asked, she would have deflected the question, but Anju was her best friend. “I couldn’t afford not to go. There’s been so much going on. For one thing, it’s getting close to the Carnival of Time, and you know what that means for the ranch.”
“You still don’t know who’s stealing your cattle during the Carnival?”
“No. I keep thinking it must be the Gorman Brothers, but I can’t prove it. Romani insists that creatures come down out of the sky to take them.”
Anju smiled. “You never know. Maybe she’s right.”
“No, she’s not, and you know it.” Both young women giggled. “It could also be the bandits that come by Milk Road at night. And that’s another thing—every time I try to make an evening delivery, they come out of nowhere and steal all of the milk. But it’s hard for me to make deliveries during the day with Romani and the rest of the ranch needing my care.”
Cremia paused to take some steadying breaths. “Even if we don’t go anywhere, sometimes we’ll see signs of sabotage the next morning. A milk jar’s been smashed, or some of the fences have been torn down…” She pressed her hands against her face so that Anju wouldn’t see her eyes watering. “...Grog will tell me that some of the Cuccos’ eggs have been smashed, Mamamu Yan will tell me that money’s gone missing from her dog racetrack…”
Anju got up from Romani’s bed and sat next to Cremia, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. With no one else inside the room except her best friend, Cremia allowed herself to break down and cry. “I just don’t know what to do anymore, Anju. It’s been like this ever since Father died. I can’t lose his ranch, but everything I try to do just goes wrong.”
“It’ll be alright,” murmured Anju, rubbing her hand against Cremia’s back, “You’re doing everything you can.” Cremia sniffled and hiccoughed. “Is there anything that Kafei and I can do…?”
“No, no, you’re doing enough already,” replied Cremia, gesturing to the two beds.
Anju thought some more. “Maybe you need a distraction? Would you like to see my wedding mask? I just finished it last night.”
Cremia managed to smile. “You actually finished it? A month before the wedding? I thought for sure that you’d save it for the morning of the ceremony.”
“Oh, stop it! I don’t leave everything for the last minute!” They both laughed as Cremia followed Anju into her own room.
Romani thumped down the stairs and hopped all the way over to Anju’s grandmother’s room. The old lady sat in her favorite rocking chair by the fireplace, just as she always did. When she heard the door open, she called out, “Is that you, Tortus…?” but stopped herself when she saw who had entered the room. “Oh, Romani! What brings you out to our inn?”
“Romani’s here because we got stuck in the storm!”
“Oh, I see. And who will watch over the cows while you and your sister stay here? Aren’t you worried about Them? ”
The little girl frowned. “Cremia said that Grog can watch the cows. Romani thinks it’s alright for one night. They don’t come until the week of the Carnival of Time, and that’s forty-five days ‘til now. Romani counted.” Anju’s grandmother smiled and patted her knees as Romani climbed up into her lap. “Cremia doesn’t believe that they steal the cows. She says it must be bandits.”
“Hmph. Cremia ought to learn her history, just like all of the other people in this town. It is said that those creatures come out of the sky during the Carnival of Time every other century or so, and they’re as old as the Four Giants themselves.”
“Can you tell Romani the stories about them? Please?”
“Yes. During the first Carnival of Time…” But as Anju’s grandmother began her tale, a faint noise cut through the sounds of the rain beating against the windows and the winds whistling outside. It was the high-pitched ring of a bell. “Someone is at the desk,” the old woman realized, “Where is that granddaughter of mine?”
“Romani can help! Romani can go to the desk!” Romani jumped off her lap and ran to the door. She’d seen Anju wait on customers before and knew exactly where to go. The trouble was, as she entered the waiting room through the staff door, she couldn’t see who was there because the counter was too high. Romani doubled back to the kitchen and found a crate that she could use. Once she’d pushed it up to the counter and climbed on top of it, she recognized the man waiting for her. “Hello, Kafei!”
Kafei laughed. “Well, you’re not the person I expected to see! Where is my lovely fiancée?”
“She’s upstairs with my sister! We’re spending the night! C’mon, Romani will take you!” She hopped down from the crate and ran around to the other side of the desk so that she could pull Kafei up the stairs.
Just as they reached the top, her sister and Anju came out of the latter’s bedroom, giggling amongst themselves. “Oh! Kafei!” Anju’s face flushed bright red when she saw the new arrival. “What are you doing here?”
“I just thought I’d check to make sure you and your family were safe during this storm.” Kafei stooped down to tousle Romani’s hair. “You have a very good assistant at the desk.”
“We’re alright; you didn’t have to check on us. But you’re welcome to stay.”
“Yes! Yes! Please stay!” Romani bounced around at Kafei’s feet.
Cremia grinned as well. “It’ll be just like old times when you two would spend the night at the ranch or I’d come to the inn. We could toast marshmallows in front of the fireplace?”
Anju clapped her hands together. “I can grab some spare blankets and pillows from the storage closet if we want to make a house?”
“Well, I can’t pass up on toasted marshmallows or a blanket house,” said Kafei, as he wrapped an arm around Anju. “I’ll help you carry them. Where are we making it?”
“Let’s set things up in the guest room where Romani and I are staying,” suggested Cremia. She and Anju exchanged grins as she added, “We can’t go in Anju’s room or you’ll see her mask before it’s ready.”
“You actually started it?!” asked Kafei.
Anju threw her hands up. “You and Cremia! Yes, and I even finished it. I’m not that hopeless!”
“I’m just saying, you always leave things until the last minute...”
“ You don’t have an entire inn to run.”
Anju and Kafei continued teasing each other as they went down the hall to get the spare blankets and pillows. Cremia volunteered to get the marshmallows and some other snacks from the kitchen, which she and Romani arranged on the table in their room. Both sisters noticed that it took longer than expected for Anju and Kafei to come back and the couple’s faces were bright red. Still, they managed to maintain their composure as they got to work on their blanket shelter. Romani had never made one before, so Cremia walked her through the process of arranging the pillows underneath the table, with the blankets hanging over the sides.
“Do you remember the first time we made one of these?” asked Kafei.
Cremia laughed. “Of course not. You weren’t born yet.” She gently pulled her sister’s arm back so that her marshmallow wouldn’t catch fire. “The storm was just as bad that time too, wasn’t it? Anju was terrified.”
“I hated thunderstorms,” Anju agreed, “But you two helped me to get over them. I had so much fun making the blanket house with you that I couldn’t wait for the next rainy day to invite you back over.”
“You used to hide under it every time we heard the thunder rumbling,” recalled Kafei.
“Thunder’s not scary, it’s just loud,” said Romani, “It’s because the sky’s angry that the sun’s not out. It’ll stop shouting once the rain stops.” She could not understand why her sister and her friends were giggling so hard. It wasn’t like they had ever given her a solid theory for why they heard thunder during a storm. “It’s true! Romani knows it’s true!”
“Well, I just hope the sky doesn’t stay angry for too long. We can’t ask Grog to take care of the cows all day and all night,” said Cremia.
Kafei shook his head. “Cremia, you and Romani shouldn’t have to run an entire ranch by yourselves.”
“Why not? Anju runs an inn by herself,” Cremia pointed out. “We can’t afford to hire extra farm hands anyway.”
“Can’t we volunteer? I don’t know how to milk a cow, but I could learn…?”
The offer was sincere, so Cremia swallowed her incoming laugh over the mental image of Kafei milking a cow. “How can you two have time to volunteer when you’re about to get married? And on the Carnival of Time, when the Stock Pot Inn is booked solid?”
Anju spoke up. “Remember that year when your family was here for the Carnival, and your father heard that our inn was low on food and drink, so he drove all the way back to the ranch to bring us extra Chateau Romani? Your family has always been there for us, even when you were busy with your own lives. Why can’t you let us support you?”
Truthfully, Cremia didn’t know why. It just felt different when she asked someone else for help as opposed to offering it to another. “Well, you helped us a lot today. Does that make us even?”
Anju elbowed her. “Getting there.”
As the hours passed and the day changed to night, the temperature continued to drop. They all huddled close together in front of the fire to absorb its warmth. When the flames died down, Kafei led Romani on a scavenger hunt around the house to find extra wood and paper so they could keep it going. Cremia helped Anju make hot chocolate for everyone and they brought up more marshmallows to toast.
Soon, Cremia knew that she would have to get back to the ranch and its many problems. Figure out who was smashing milk bottles, breaking down the fences, and stealing cows. Collect the rent from Grog and Mamamu Yan. Fend off the Gorman Brothers’ attempts to buy the ranch from her. Anju would go back to managing the Stock Pot Inn with her family, preparing for her wedding to Kafei, and making sure everything was in order in time for the Carnival of Time.
But maybe...Grog and Mamamu Yan could help her figure out who was sabotaging the ranch, given that it affected them too. And Kafei had connections in Clock Town-—if he had time, he could do some investigating to see if the culprit came from there. Bremor and his friends had been kind enough to help her with the deliveries; maybe they would help her again.
Cremia still wasn’t sure if she was ready to ask any of them for help yet. But for the moment, as she curled up with her little sister and two best friends, she didn’t feel as alone as she usually did.