Penelope held the pale gold garment to the light of the window for a final inspection of the stitching as chimes rang through the cottage.
Mrs. Mary Walburton, ever perfectly on time.
Penelope remained focused on the hemline as Sister Heely’s footsteps clipped across the polished stone of the kitchen, down the narrow hall, and came to a stop at the front door.
Examining each sleeve in turn, Penelope listened as the door was opened and Mary ushered across the threshold, back down the hall, and into the kitchen for tea.
Penelope smiled as Mary’s cheerful banter thundered from the dining table, echoing from the timber walls, followed by the genteel tones of Sister Heely’s answering wit, and joined soon after by the shrill whistling of a kettle.
“My word, just look at your Pigtail Blooms! I haven’t seen a shade of red like that since your poor mother caught us climbing the west-end lattices with an armful of fig pies. Thought her head would pop clear off!”
“Rest her spirits, the cussing of that woman nearly woke the dead. And did wake the palace dogs. Chased us all the way to the pond’s edge.”
“And we didn’t lose a single pastry!”
The women laughed as Penelope trimmed the last loose threads before folding the gown into a black box with the Starwood family crest embossed on the lid.
Tucking a stray spiral of her dark hair behind her ear, Penelope joined the women in the kitchen, ceremoniously placing the box atop the kitchen table as Sister Heely poured tea.
The scent of steeping Honey Rose leaf wafted throughout the room.
“Goodnoon, Mary,” Penelope said. “I have your-”
Mary stood so suddenly that Sister Heely had to steady Mary’s cup before it spilled tea across the weathered grey wood of the table.
-order,” Penelope laughed. Eager for Mary’s reaction to her work, Penelope anxiously kneaded the ache from her fingertips, her brown skin reflecting the gold of the afternoon light.
Clapping her small hands with a squeal, Mary removed the lid of the box and lifted the bodice of the gown to the light.
“Penelope, love, you’ve outdone yourself!”
Penelope pressed her hands to her freckled cheeks and grinned at Mary. “It’s been an age since I’ve used gold silk thread,” Penelope said, reaching out to trace the fine embroidery along the neckline, glinting in the light of the winter sun. “It must be quite an auspicious occasion to merit such materials…” Penelope smirked at Mary as Sister Heely arched a thin grey eyebrow and took a delicate sip of tea.
Privately, of course, Penelope and the Sisters had speculated with a burning curiosity as to the event; Sisters Heely and Rosin had even taken bets, an activity in which Penelope had refused to participate.
Mary bounced on the balls of her small, bark-leather boots, scrunching her round face in exaggerated deliberation. Penelope and Sister Heely said nothing, knowing Mary could never abide prolonged silence.
Penelope had only taken a small bite of daisy shortcake when Mary burst out, “Fine! I’ll tell you! Although it’s supposed to be secret, and it’s really only rumours nonetheless…”
Sister Heely glanced at Penelope, for they both knew Mary’s position in the royal court exposed her to whispers that amounted to more than mere rumour.
Besides, Penelope thought, nobody commissions a gown worth half a fortune on rumour alone.
“Oh well, if it’s a secret, then you really oughtn’t tell,” Sister Heely teased, sniffing through her thin nose, knowing nothing pleased Mary more than being first to share exclusive gossip.
Mary pulled a face at Sister Heely and said, “I’ve heard the Grimwoods are to host a ball. The first since Great Fall.”
Sister Heely paused, her tea cup halfway to her pale rose lips, pinky finger comically flared as her eyes grew wide.
“I’ve heard,” Mary continued, “it’s to be the most grand affair of this generation, with four sons to marry off. And-,” Mary paused to take a dramatic sip of her own tea while Penelope tried not to squirm in her seat, “-all the members of the Edenwood royal courts are to be invited.”
Penelope gasped, inhaling crumbs of daisy cake, and began to cough. Eyes watering and trying to stifle her coughing with an embroidered linen handkerchief, she composed herself enough to croak out, “All the members?”
Mary smiled kindly at Penelope. “Yes, child,” she said. “All members.”
Folding the gown neatly back into its box and replacing the lid, Mary gathered herself to leave.
“Won’t you stay and finish your tea, Mary?” Sister Heely asked.
“Oh, no thank you, my dear. Lots to get done!” With a knowing smile and a hard turn on her heel, Mary trod towards the front door with Sister Heely scurrying in her wake to see her out.
Penelope sat erect in her chair, folding her handkerchief into a precise, tidy square, her own teacup forgotten.
Later that evening, Sister Rosin returned home to find Penelope and Sister Heely seated by the hearth, a golden fire dancing in the grate.
“Oohoo!” Sister Rosin called, hanging her coat and scarf on the stand by the front entrance.
Shaking a fine powder of snow from her short brown hair, Sister Rosin plopped herself into her favourite armchair by the fire. Her feet didn’t quite reach the ground as she wriggled her broad frame deep into the cushions. The light of the fire deepened the shadows of her dimples as Sister Rosin hummed in contentment, her olive skin still flushed from the cold.
Penelope was tapping her fingers against her chin, which she only ever did when she was worrying over something.
“Welcome home, Sister Rosin.” Penelope smiled, though she was distracted by the sparking flames and the chaos of her thoughts.
A ball! A royal ball! At Grimwood no less. The whole Grimwood family had become practically reclusive since the Battle at Great Fall. Penelope was too young to remember those times, but the Sisters grew thin-lipped and solemn at the mention of it.
Penelope remained quiet as the Sisters discussed Mary’s visit. She could hear the hope in their voices. Though they hid it well, Penelope knew they longed to return to their previous stations within Starwood Palace. They had once been among the most respected governesses in the court.
Now, they lived in a cottage with Penelope on the southern outskirts of Faewood.
The Sisters stopped talking and the silence roused Penelope’s attention.
“Penelope, dear, why don’t you put on a pot of tea for us old crones,” Sister Rosin said with a wink and affectionate shoo-ing gesture towards the kitchen.
Penelope smiled. Sister Rosin had never been very subtle, and Penelope knew when the Sisters needed to talk privately. “Of course, Sister Rosin.”
While their cottage was modest, Penelope always did her best to respect the Sisters’ privacy. Though tonight, she couldn’t help the anxious curiosity to know the Sisters’ thoughts as she left the sitting lounge and padded to the kitchen.
Setting the pewter kettle atop the wood stove, Penelope unlatched the stove door to light a fire, but new wood was needed.
Sweeping out the ashes into a dustpan, Penelope carried them through the kitchen door and into the back garden. She brushed the ashes into the compost heap before collecting a few small logs of kindling from the basket by the washing tub.
A cold breeze rustled through the garden and Penelope lingered a moment to breathe in the scent of dewdrop flowers, ripe sugar pips, and freshly-cut treacle clovers.
She loved their small garden, with its humble winter crop dusted with newly fallen snow. Though the cottage was fenced along the east and west borders, the garden sprawled half-wild into the Faewood beyond the cottage boundaries.
When Penelope was very young, the Sisters had built fence after fence to keep her from wandering into the wood. Yet that north fence always seemed to crumble away, as if the garden itself refused to be kept separate from the rest of the forest.
Nothing grew in their garden that the garden itself didn’t wish to grow. Season after season, the Sisters had waged battle against the garden, shaping it to grow neat rows of potatoes, tomatoes, turnips, and “good, dependable herbs”, as Sister Rosin called them.
Yet their orderly squares of tilled earth quickly became overgrown with wild greens, and their spinach seedlings always seemed to wither back into dust.
Instead, the garden yielded its own seasonal varieties unfamiliar to the Sisters, and so Penelope had taken to giving her own names to the flowers and fruits which grew in their small domain.
Penelope caught the faintest, tantalising scent of bread baking on the frozen evening air. Penelope had sometimes gone in search of its source over the years, yet no matter how deeply she ventured into the wild woods, she never found the mysterious baker.
Sighing as the scent faded, Penelope returned to the stove, stacking the wood into the iron pot belly. Clacking together a blue and a red fire quartz, Penelope coaxed a small purple blaze to life, which soon had the kettle whistling.
Spooning some dried Sister’s Cap leaf into a fresh teapot, Penelope allowed a few minutes for the brew to steep while arranging cups, saucers, sugar biscuits, and treacle cubes on a tray.
Carrying the tray slowly and with care towards the lounge, Penelope caught a few words of the Sisters’ conversation.
“-if they don’t send an invitation?” Sister Heely murmured in a low, worried tone.
“Then nothing will have changed and our responsibilities remain here,” Sister Rosin answered. Both women sighed.
Penelope squeezed her eyes shut, taking a slow breath in to quell the familiar, anxious pang of guilt, and forced a smile.
Opening her eyes and clearing her throat to announce her presence, Penelope stepped around the corner into the lounge and settled the tray on the small hearthside table.
The three of them sat in companionable, if uneasy, silence as they drank their tea.
Penelope watched the last of the embers die in the broad, blackstone hearth before climbing the stairs to bed.