Though she had gone to bed late the night before, and her sleep was restless, Penelope awoke to the blue light of dawn.
The twinkle of small crystal stars, a legacy of childhood comfort, glittered from the sloped wooden ceiling where they had been strung many years prior.
Penelope rose, donned her robe and slippers, and padded to the window overlooking the front garden. Weathered stepping stones lead to a small white gate, beyond which lay a winding pebble path which disappeared into the green of Faewood, running south and south and south, all the way to home.
She still thought of Starwood as home, though she hadn’t set eyes on its quartz spires for nearly fifteen years. Her last glimpse of them had been at sundown through the back window of a carriage when she was five years old. The turrets had shone pink in the growing dusk, fading to orange, and then to purple, finally vanishing from sight altogether once the carriage had entered the shade of Faewood.
Only because Penelope had been gazing southward while lost in thought did she catch the silvern glimmer through the distant trees.
Squinting in the dim light, Penelope watched as the glimmer grew closer, accompanied by the distinctive clip of hooves.
Penelope froze, barely breathing, for a long moment before she sprinted to her door, slammed it open, and sped across the narrow landing to the Sisters’ bedroom.
Hesitating for only a moment, Penelope rapped on the wood of their door. “Sisters! Wake up! Oh, they’re here! They’re really coming!”
Penelope listened to the sounds of disgruntled muttering and the thump of feet across floorboards as the Sisters rose from their bed.
Penelope hopped from foot to foot, waiting for the door to open.
As soon as Sister Heely creaked the door wide, Penelope pointed to their window. “Look south! There’s an entourage coming!”
Sister Heely and Penelope dashed to the window, joined soon after by Sister Rosin who was grumbling and rubbing sleep from her eyes.
The three of them stood watching in silence as a procession of six horses bearing regal squires and a knight, all wearing ceremonial helmets and gleaming chest plates, became visible through the trees. A dark green, almost black, flag bearing the Grimwood crest—three crossed clubs of bone—fluttered in the breeze.
“What are we doing just gawking here?” Sister Rosin hissed. “They can’t be more than ten minutes away, we have to dress!”
The three women scrambled into motion, hurriedly washing their faces, dressing, and combing their hair before meeting once more at the foot of the stairs. Penelope fussed with her spiralling brown curls, before Sister Rosin said, “You look lovely, dear.” Penelope gulped a breath, nodded, and smiled wanly.
Not a minute later, the clip-clop of horse hooves sounded on the pebble path, coming to a stop by the gate.
Sister Heely flung open the front door and waved Penelope out first.
A tall squire was dismounting from a restless black steed as Penelope reached the gate, the Sisters following close behind.
“Good morning, sir squire,” Penelope said, dipping a shallow curtsy. The squire crossed his arms over his breastplate in greeting.
“Good morning. I am herald for the royal family Grimwood and seek the Princess Penelope of Starwood. My company was directed to take this path from the village by Clear Lake, but I fear we may be lost…” The herald trailed off as his eyes flitted from face to face, then to the squat two-story cottage, taking in the thatched roof in need of maintenance, and the mess of pot plants overflowing the porch.
Penelope stepped forward, cheeks burning. “Good herald, I am Princess Penelope of Royal House Starwood.”
The herald said nothing for a moment, then bowed deeply. “Princess Penelope of Starwood, I bear you an invitation to the Dark Moon ball on behalf of Royal House Grimwood. Our realm would be honoured by your attendance.” The herald straightened and held out a small parcel wrapped in green paper and tied with bronze string.
Penelope accepted the parcel with trembling fingers. Clearing her throat, and hoping she remembered the etiquette correctly, Penelope said, “The House of Starwood thanks House Grimwood for the honour of an invitation.” With a final curtsy dismissing the herald, the man mounted his horse and rejoined his company further down the path.
Penelope and the Sisters watched them ride into the thick woods until the entourage were out of sight, undoubtedly racing towards their next house call.
“Well,” sniffed Sister Heely, breaking the spell of silence, and they retreated to the kitchen.
Penelope placed the parcel on the kitchen table as Sister Heely stoked the oven fire to make tea.
Feeling queasy with nerves, Penelope waited until they had steaming mugs and a heaped plate of breakfast cakes set down before reaching to unwrap the parcel.
The Sisters watched as Penelope unwound the twine, then unfolded the thick green paper, revealing a small bronze painted box crafted from thick bark pulp.
Lifting the lid revealed a small, round disc of polished black quartz, opaque and smooth as a mirror. Next to the disc, and set within a thin black cushion, lay a tiny glass vial of green shimmering liquid.
“There’s a letter here,” Rosin remarked, unsticking a small envelope from the underside of the box lid. “Looks like the wax seal hadn’t even dried before they packaged them up! Grimwood must be rushing these out by dozens!” Tsking, Sister Rosin handed Penelope the deep green envelope sealed with bronze wax. Tearing the seal and unfolding the letter, Penelope read aloud:
“To Princess Penelope of the Royal House Starwood, you are cordially invited to attend the Dark Moon ball at Grimwood Fort, commencing sunset one month hence.
“The King, Queen, and Seven Sons of Grimwood House would be most honoured by your esteemed presence.
“Please respond by the equinox.”
Taken aback by the abrupt sign off, Penelope flipped the letter over to find a brief set of instructions:
“To respond: pour the potion contained here-in over one surface of the obsidian coin provided.”
Penelope lifted the vial from its cushion and held it to the light. The deep green liquid writhed and flashed, like clouds in a lightning storm.
Sister Rosin picked up the obsidian disc. It was blank on both sides, and fit neatly in Sister Rosin’s small palm. Setting it gently on the table, she looked to Penelope expectantly. “The equinox is a week from now,” Sister Rosin said. “What would you like to do?”
Penelope thought for a moment, frowning at the black disc. The atmosphere around the table was tense with nervous anticipation.
“Well, we know we’ll be attending so we may as well respond now.” Penelope held her breath as she unstoppered the cork from the small vial, held it over the surface of the obsidian coin, and tipped the contents out.
Rather than the liquid Penelope had been expecting, a small cloud of shimmering green billowed around the coin, swirling in a lazy vortex, before being sucked completely into the disc.
The obsidian pulsed with amber light before arcs of lightning struck outwards, hitting Penelope and the Sisters in the center of their foreheads.
The kitchen spun and disappeared, to be replaced by a warmly lit atrium of glass and bone marble. Cultured vines of green and purple climbed trellises along the walls.
Beyond the glass of the atrium, Penelope could make out a garden filled with rose bushes overflowing with golden blooms. A bright amber sun shone high in the sky.
At the sound of a crystalline chirp, Penelope looked up to see small birds with bronze and gold plumage flitting amongst the intertwining vines overhead.
The sweet scent of honey cakes and jam filled the air as an elegant lounge and table laden with tea materialised before her.
Penelope startled as Sister Rosin let out a low whistle, for she hadn’t realised the Sisters stood behind her.
Taking a breath to steady her senses, Penelope asked, “Where are we?”
As she spoke, a woman appeared in a glimmer of sparkling light, seated in one of the lounge chairs facing Penelope and the Sisters.
“Welcome,” the woman said with a regal smile. “I am Selena, your attendant within this imaginable realm. Please, sit, and enjoy some tea.”
“Is this… what is… how?” Penelope sputtered as she sat herself down in a cushioned armchair. The Sisters followed suit, sitting in chairs either side of Penelope and ogling the lavishly iced cakes and fine tea set.
“You are currently hosted within an imaginal instance, a dreamscape if you will, crafted for your pleasure by the Dreamsmiths of Grimwood. You are perfectly safe, and free to return home at any time if that is your wish. In fact, you have not truly left your own home at all.” Selena smiled as she poured tea for each of the bewildered women.
Sister Heely was gazing around with open awe, which was quite out of character for the usually reserved woman.
“So,” Penelope said, picking up her tea cup, “this is.. like being asleep? It’s not real?”
“It is as real as far as real is within the mind, if not the body,” Selena replied, which clarified nothing as far as Penelope was concerned.
“Yes, dear,” Sister Heely said to Penelope. “This is like a dream that we’re in all together.” Sister Heely leaned forward to sniff at the cakes as she spoke, her thin lips quirking in delight.
Penelope relaxed into the cushion of her seat as she took a sip of perfectly sweetened tea. It certainly tasted real, and the cup was pleasantly warm in her hands. Selena held out a plate of scones, which Penelope accepted.
“You are welcome to stay until the sun sets beyond the gardens. When you are ready, you may let me know your response to your invitation by calling my name. Otherwise, I will return for your response by twilight. I shall leave you now to your tea and private conversation.” Before Penelope could say another word, Selena faded from sight.
“Wow,” Sister Rosin whispered. Penelope picked up a marble teaspoon and dolloped jam and cream onto her steaming scones.
“This is amazing,” Penelope sighed, taking a bite and offering the plate to Sister Heely. Sister Heely declined, instead standing to wander about the small atrium.
“There’s no door leading outside, so the garden must be decorational. Still, the detail is the most impressive I’ve ever seen! And to host multiple minds within the one imaginal space without it becoming unstable, I don’t even know how they’ve done it!”
Sister Heely continued to chatter excitedly as she wandered about, examining the bone marble frames of the tall glass windows, and occasionally reaching out to touch the waxy-looking leaves growing from the vines. She watched a nearby bird preen its bronze feathers for a minute or two, before sitting back down in her chair and taking a long sip of tea.
“Mm, can’t go past a good, strong black leaf,” Sister Heely said.
“Black leaf? But my tea is honeyed elderflower,” Penelope said. “I’m sure they were poured from the same pot…” Penelope lifted the lid of the teapot and breathed in the scent of steeping elderflowers with notes of honey.
“Yes, definitely strong black leaf,” Sister Heely said, leaning over to look into the pot.
Penelope stared at her. “Trade cups with me, Sister Heely.”
Sister Heely raised an eyebrow, but swapped cups with Penelope. They both took a sip. “What do you taste?” Penelope asked.
“Strong black… let me guess, you taste honeyed elderflower?”
Penelope nodded as Sister Heely muttered, “Simply fascinating. So that’s how they’ve stabilised it, the space is at least partially responsive to our own individual preferences. I’d wager anything we see different flavoured jams as well.”
“Fig,” said Sister Rosin, even as Penelope said “Strawberry.”
“Apricot,” laughed Sister Heely. “Oh, this is so delightfully clever!” Her grey-blue eyes sparkled with a frenzied excitement that Penelope rarely saw in the woman, and felt a pang of sorrow. Would her life have been filled with moments like these, this passion for advanced alchemy, if she’d never had to leave Starwood to raise Penelope?
Penelope suppressed the thought before it showed on her face, forced a smile, and took another bite of her scone.
Penelope and the Sisters ate their fill of cakes, feeling increasingly soothed by the melodic chirping of the birds and soft cushions of their chairs.
“Well,” said Penelope after a time, “I suppose we ought to call Selena and let her know—oh!” Penelope stopped speaking as Selena materialised.
“I trust you enjoyed your tea?” Selena asked, smiling as the women nodded. “Princess Penelope of Starwood, would you like now to respond to your invitation?”
“Yes, thank you, Selena.” With a nervous glance at each Sister in turn, Penelope swallowed and said, “I would be delighted to accept the invitation, and look forward to attending the Dark Moon ball with my two governesses as companions. Sister Rosin of Noble House Devier,” Penelope gestured to Sister Rosin. “And Sister Heely of Noble House Fellworth.” Sister Heely inclined her head at Penelope, an acknowledgement of the rare formality they were engaging in.
Selena smiled warmly. “Very good, Princess Penelope of Royal House Starwood. Your response has been relayed to the attendance ledger. The Royal House of Grimwood anticipates hosting yourself and companions on the night of Dark Moon hence. Do you wish to stay longer, or return home?”
Looking at the Sisters, who each nodded at Penelope, she replied, “We’d like to return home now, please. Thank you for the hospitality.”
Selena nodded and, with a final smile and a snap of her fingers, the atrium dissolved to black.
Penelope gasped and opened her eyes to find herself in their humble cottage kitchen once more.
Feeling unusually stiff, Penelope shook out her arms and arched into a stretch. The Sisters did the same.
Blinking in the dim light, Penelope picked up the mug of tea in front of her, noting it was still hot.
It felt as though they had spent several hours in the atrium, yet the morning sky beyond the kitchen window was no lighter than before.
“I feel like I’ve awoken from a full night of sleep,” Penelope remarked, taking a sip of tea as her stomach growled. “It feels strange to be hungry after eating all those scones.”
“Imaginal realms can be… tricky,” Sister Heely said. “That was a very complex dream working. Time doesn’t pass in the same way, and everything within those realms exists within the mind alone.
“Craft like that is often limited to very brief visions, and only for individuals. I’ve never experienced one that detailed, or one which felt so… real,”Sister Heely frowned in thought. “Whatever they’ve been doing at Grimwood this past few decades has clearly paid off. Remarkable!”
As a practiced alchemist, Sister Heely knew more than most about the magics of dreamsmithing. Though, for as long as Penelope could remember, Sister Heely’s main craft had involved making salves, soaps, and perfumes from the wild herbs in their cottage garden. Sister Rosin sold these at the Clear Lake markets, along with the embroidered handkerchiefs, scarves, and skirts that Penelope made.
Combined with the occasional commission for custom gowns from the Sisters’ acquaintances, they earned a fairly stable, if small, living from their work.
Enough to keep their cottage thatched and supplies stocked over the winter months of slower trade.
Penelope reached for a breakfast cake, chewing slowly as she stared at the dream coin. It had been transmuted to bronze, and now bore the names and titles of Penelope and the Sisters in small, elegant script on the surface. Flipping the coin over, Penelope saw the time, date, and location of the ball was transcribed on the back.
“Well,” said Sister Rosin with a mischievous smile. “I suppose this means it’s time to go dress shopping.”